It's always a shame to see opportunity squandered.
Such is the case with Portland author Patrick deWitt's French Exit (Ecco, 256 pages, $25.99). What could be a delightful character study about the foibles of a wealthy family on the verge of losing it all—à la Arrested Development or your pick of Chekhov plays—falls flat in the character department, leaving readers with a book of quips and little else.
In this case, form mirrors fiction. The squandering of opportunity also happens to be the driving force of French Exit's narrative. The story follows a wealthy Upper East Side widow, Frances, and her son, Malcolm, who are informed their finances are running short. They respond by absconding to a friend's apartment in Paris—their Parisian real estate has been repossessed—and blowing through their fortune. Similarly, though deWitt has a wealth of characters and ample opportunity to put them in situations where they change or grow, he opts instead for wacky situations and witty dialogue.
There's a fine line to be walked in works of fiction about the obscenely wealthy. On the one hand, the kinds of opportunities afforded the characters can be alienating to the reader, disconnecting them from the characters—I can't conceive of a universe in which I have Parisian real estate. On the other hand, there's a no shortage of humorous schadenfreude to be gained from seeing misfortunes befall the wealthy. That, and how characters act in their spare time, tends to reveal the most about their character. And if there's one thing that the obscenely wealthy have, it is spare time.
To deWitt's credit, the misfortunes that befall Frances and Malcolm are quite amusing. Malcolm has sex with a cruise-ship psychic! And his dead father, with whom they have a séance, is maybe possessing a cat! Watching the stuffy, upper-crust characters navigate awkward situations leads to some great dialogue as well: "Actually I think it's pretty weird we fucked in the first place," says Madeleine, the aforementioned cruise-ship psychic, to Malcolm. "I'm comfortable not talking about it," he responds. How droll.
But Malcolm emerges from the novel wholly unchanged. Without giving away the ending, Frances makes a deliberate decision not to change. The rest of the characters are set pieces—asking for any great revelations from them would be asking too much. For its wealth of characters, French Exit is surprisingly light on any sort of growth or transformation.
For a summer beach read or something to amuse you on your commute, French Exit is a great book. It's certainly funny. But deWitt is an excellent writer—he was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for 2011's The Sisters Brothers, and Undermajordomo Minor was one of my favorite books of 2015—with a premise that could lead to so much more. Instead, funny is all he manages to be.
See Related: Another Book By a Portland Author Was Made into a Movie.
SEE IT: Patrick deWitt reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., powells.com, on Tuesday, Aug. 28. 7:30 pm.