Usually, when I read books set in Paris, they are quirky romances or coming of age stories but this time I tried something a little bit different. Maybe this is because rather than being a novel by a French author French Exit is by a Canadian writer now living in the USA and, on the whole, it features American characters. And, oh boy, these characters are all the larger than life type of Americans!
Frances Price is the widow of a very rich, very succesful and rather nasty man whose hedonistic New York lifestyle has burned through her inheritance. When the banks start to refuse her line of credit and serious men with clipboards start listing all her assets Frances manages to sell some of her less obvious valuables and sets sail for Paris with her grown-up son, Malcolm. They are followed on board ship by their elderly cat, Small Frank, who may or may not be inhabited by the spirit of the late Frank Price and make their way to an apartment borrowed from Frances’ oldest (and, probably, only) friend Joan. Selfish and spoiled Frances has decided she will spend all her money – every last cent – and then end her life: But can she continue with this plan as she and her son manage to accrue a motley collection of new friends and acquaintances – including Madame Reynard (an ex-pat), a psychic, a private detective, a doctor and his wine merchant friend?
Although the characters and situations in this book seem very American at first – big, bold and brash – the issues which are raised during the story are as subtle and bittersweet as anything I’ve come across in continental novels. Malcolm is a mess, unable to fend for himself, seeking refuge in food and alcohol, yet his on again, off again fiance can’t help but love him: given what we learn of his childhood I’m surprised he is functional at all. Even Frances gradually reveals some of the factors which led to her brittle, demanding and emotionally cold character. Between the almost slapstick comedic episodes we discover that almost any person is redeemable (even if they have become a cat) – if only they will allow themselves to be.