'French Exit' gives a witty look at a rarefied world

French Exit
French Exit

French Exit

By Patrick deWitt

Ecco. 256 pp. $25.99

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The opening scene of Patrick deWitt's "French Exit" is so perfectly staged that a curtain seems to rise on his elegant creation. "It was late autumn, dusk; the windows of the brownstone were lit, a piano sounded on the air - a tasteful party was occurring." Frances Price, leaving early, makes her excuses to a tipsy, clinging hostess. A discreet struggle ensues until Frances' adult son intervenes. "Malcolm found the hostess pliable; he peeled her away from his mother, then took the woman's hand in his and shook it. She watched her hand going up and down with an expression of puzzlement."

The reader too may be a little confused. This certainly does not seem like a Patrick deWitt novel. Manhattan's Upper East Side is, after all, worlds away from the 1850s frontier of deWitt's astonishing epic "The Sisters Brothers" and from the gothic realms of the later "Undermajordomo Minor." What's more, these characters belong in a Noel Coward play. Or so it seems until Frances and Malcolm, dallying outside, attract a panhandler. "He swayed in place, and Frances asked him, in a confiding voice, 'Is it possible you've already had something to drink tonight?'"

"'I got my edges smoothed,' the man admitted." The conversation continues in this vein, concluding with Frances asking, "Would you really drink both gallons in the night?"

"Yeah, yes, I surely would."

"Wouldn't you feel awful in the morning?"

"That's what mornings are for, ma'am."

Now the reader can relax. Within a few sentences, the comic brilliance that sparked deWitt's earlier adventures ignites this "tragedy of manners" and Frances Price, "a moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five years," is revealed to be another of deWitt's sublime eccentrics. The widow of Franklin Price, a brutish lawyer, Frances, along with Malcolm and a cat named Small Frank, relishes living in reckless luxury. (The panhandler, by the way, gets $20.) But when Frances' inheritance runs out, her treasures must be turned into cash. "I have a somewhat dirty job that needs doing," she tells a fawning estate liquidator, "and you are a somewhat dirty person." This unpleasantness transacted, the Prices decamp by ship to Paris - where else? - to live in the spare apartment of good old Joan, Frances's only friend. Before leaving, however, Malcolm must break the heart of his long-suffering fiancee. "He was a pile of American garbage," the defeated Susan observes, "and she feared she would love him forever."

Then we are off. Rarely has a trans-Atlantic voyage and its limited diversions been so pithily evoked.

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