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“French Exit” by Patrick deWitt – book review

One-sentence review: like a PG Wodehouse comedy but with a darker edge.

Slightly longer review:

Calling a novel about a woman’s self-destruction light, funny and enjoyable sounds messed up – and yet somehow, with a surprisingly deft touch – that’s exactly what Patrick deWitt achieved with French Exit.

As with PG Wodehouse, deWitt takes aim at those so wealthy they don’t need to work – and like Wodehouse, he does so with gentle good humour. Those after a biting attack on the 1 per cent might need to find another book.

Instead, you find yourself feeling for the sharp-tongued Frances, who thrives on scandal and lives with her 32-year-old oddball son Malcolm in a swish New York suite – until she runs out of money and they have to flee to Paris with their cat, Little Frank.

Determined to spend every last dollar that she owns, they embark on an adventure that involves a psychic, a private detective, a devoted admirer as well as Malcolm’s fiancée, who could have anyone she wants and yet, for some inexplicable reason, is instead drawn to him.

It was only after finishing this book that I realised I’d once read another of Patrick deWitt’s novels – namely Ablutions, his debut in which he writes about an increasingly alcoholic bartender who works in a seedy Hollywood bar. At first it seemed as if the two novels couldn’t be more different: Ablutions is harsh, shocking and brutal, filled with vomit and despair, whereas French Exit is a joyous comic romp … and it’s only on reflection that you realise that both are still about despair and self-annihilation. 

It’s for this reason that French Exit stands out as the most intriguing novel I’ve read in months. Long after I’ve finished it, I’m still unpicking it.

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