French Exit (2018) is the latest novel by Canadian author Patrick deWitt, who gave us The Sisters Brothers (2011), later adapted into a movie starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly. In The Sisters Brothers he turned a number of conventions of the Western genre on their heads, which made for an absurd story blending banality with violence and some sentimentality. In French Exit he does this to a large extent again, but through a modern-day tale with overtones of a comedy of manners, or a tragedy of manner as the book has been labeled.
Frances Price, a socialite in her 60s, is bent on burning through her savings in New York and then Paris. Decades before, she'd discovered the body of her husband on their bed, and immediately left for a ski trip instead of reporting the death to the police. Now, she and her adult son, Malcolm, leave everything behind and head to France with Small Frank, a cat in which the soul of Frances’s late husband resides.
They meet other oddballs when they arrive, including a medium who not only can tell when people are about to die but also can mediate communication between Frances and her husband in the cat, which is lost in a park and all-around miserable about its existence. I got a sense from about half-way through the book that things would end badly, at least for either Frances or Malcolm, or at the very least for the cat.
Somewhere about three-quarters in, the novel's tone changes. Whereas most of the book employs tropes commonly associated with comedy of manners, satirically portraying the behavior of the obscenely wealthy (or formerly so in this case), the final quarter abandons those elements for something mushy and far less absurd. The first part I enjoyed very much, laughing a lot at the wit and wordplay as well as the cold-hearted, sharp-tongued Frances. The last part, though, not so much, as the "tragic" ingredients didn't sit well after all the Oscar Wilde-like airiness (thus making it a tragedy of manners, I suppose). It was good, not great, and I enjoyed The Sisters Brothers much more.