To the best of my knowledge, Patrick deWitt’s witty new novel “French Exit” isn’t optioned for the screen — yet. But I could see a movie playing in my head as I happily turned its pages; perhaps with Meryl Streep as imperious widow Frances Price and Paul Dano as her man-child son Malcolm. Its tone would be funny, quirky, unpredictable; its style would have a certain faded glamour, a winking je ne sais quoi. Someone please make this happen, so I can spend a little more time hanging out with these characters.
“French Exit” begins with an irresistible bang: We meet two insanely rich people, who are about to become insanely broke. Bankruptcy looms over 65-year-old Frances — famous in the tabloids for going skiing in Vail for the weekend immediately upon discovering the body of her husband, dead from a heart attack — and 32-year-old Malcolm, whose girlfriend refers to him as a “lugubrious toddler of a man.” The pair, who live in eccentric seclusion in a lavish apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, clearly aren’t going to handle an impoverished life very well; their response to the appearance of a lizard in the apartment is to immediately check into twin suites at the Four Seasons. So Frances clutches at a lifeline tossed to them by a friend: a vacant apartment in Paris.
Off they go (stiffing the Four Seasons on their way out), accompanied by their cat Small Frank, who is “elderly to the point of decrepitude” and who carries the spirit of the late Mr. Price — or so Frances believes. And, ooh la la, that small apartment is soon comically filled with not just the Prices, but an assortment of supporting characters. Among them: a would-be psychic, a wine merchant/philosopher, a private investigator, a French widow who wants company, and, in the book’s third act, an injection of visiting Americans, cramming the apartment to the breaking point. All of this is rendered with an arch elegance; a narrative voice that sees all, with a delicately raised eyebrow.
DeWitt, a B.C. native now living in Portland, is the author of several novels, including “The Sisters Brothers” (itself recently adapted for the movies). He gives “French Exit” a delicious brittleness; you come to care about these spiky characters in spite of yourself, not because the narrator thinks you should. The Prices aren’t cuddly — Frances has a “searching, malevolent flicker in her eye”; Malcolm is a casual thief (he meets his girlfriend while stealing her dead father’s watch from a bedroom during a party) — but they’re good company. Here’s hoping they’ll be back.
“French Exit” by Patrick deWitt, Ecco, 256 pp. $24.99
Patrick deWitt will appear, in conversation with Maria Semple, at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 6, at Seattle Public Library’s Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free, 206-386-4636, spl.org.
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