A year has passed since I wrote my last book review. In that time, I have read dozens and dozens of books, but nary a one has motivated me to write a review.
Don’t get me wrong; some have been really good. Less by Andrew Sean Greer won the Pulitzer, deservedly. But with all that hype, nothing I could have written in a review would have made you read it if you hadn’t already. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is delightfully quirky . . . so long as you’re into that particular brand of Japanese fiction in translation. You know, like Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. Oh, you don’t know? Yeah, that’s why I didn’t write the review. And You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld is a delightful collection of short stories. But nine out of ten people don’t like reading short stories, and ten out of ten don’t like reading my reviews of short stories.
And let’s be real: nobody cares about all the slightly better-than-average books I read (least of all me). I’m looking at you, Scythe by Neal Shusterman (a fun, dark utopian concept that is utterly ruined by its garbage follow-up, Thunderhead), the much-beloved A Gentleman in Moscow (which doesn’t hold a candle to Towles’ incredible debut, Rules of Civility), An American Marriage (well-written, thought-provoking, and worth reading for its timeliness, but just real damn depressing), and All the Answers (a “graphic memoir” about the Quiz Kid, which I sped through in the hour after I brought it home from the library, but which wouldn’t appeal to a wide audience because of its format).
Worse yet are the books that should’ve been good and just weren’t. This is where I waggle my finger at Turtles All the Way Down, Everything I Never Told You, Underground Airlines, and Us Against You. And the brain candy books (of which there is an embarrassing number, including To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Caraval, The Impossible Fortress, The Elizas) didn’t warrant the brain power necessary to crank out a review.
Sooooo, I bided my time.
And then I happened upon this little gem. In the first five pages, I heard the angels sing. This, I knew, was something special. I crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t peak at page sixty-five and begin a rapid descent to garbagetown as so many books do. And, glory of glories, it didn’t.
© August 28, 2018
Here’s the gist: Frances is gorgeous, filthy rich, and has exactly zero fucks to give. She smokes elegantly. She talks frankly to her cat, Small Frank. And she lives with her apathetic (and a touch pathetic) 32-year-old son, Malcolm.
Frances’s husband, Franklin, made his fortune as a smarmy lawyer (he was a magician in the courtroom and charged ridiculous sums to defend the indefensible). Their marriage was strained, due in no small part to Franklin’s dalliances. Frances’s personal infamy was born when she discovered Franklin dead in bed of a massive heart attack but couldn’t be bothered. She left Franklin where he was and went on a ski trip.
Now, twenty years hence, Frances has systematically and purposefully blown through Franklin’s massive fortune. She has given exorbitant sums to questionable causes, purchased random houses in cities she never visits, and spent hundreds of thousands on hotel suites down the block from her apartment. She and Malcolm (who, like his mother, has never worked) are left without a place to live and *only* a few hundred thousand dollars to their names, which Frances decides she will simply carry around with her in her handbag.
So, they retreat to Paris (via sea!) to stay for a spell in Frances’s best friend Joan’s apartment. There, they take up with a band of misfits, while Frances carries out her plan for the remainder of the money.
And that’s that.
If I’m being honest, the book is a bit short on plot. But you know what? It really doesn’t matter. This is a character-driven novel at its finest. Each one is at least a bit (and in some cases extremely) eccentric and severely flawed. Some are needy, some are greedy, some are weird, and some, like Tom, are just plain dumb:
The game wound down and dinner was served, a roast, and a salad of watercress, rocket, and Roquefort, then dessert, a charlotte Malakoff au chocolat much admired by the partygoers, which brought Mme Reynard a flush of pleasure. “Say what you want about Julia. I know some will drag her through the mud, but in the end, what are they actually accomplishing with this? Defining their own limitations, defending a sparse arsenal. I give credit where it’s due, and I’ll thank you to do the same.”
“Who is Julia?” Tom whispered to Joan.
Tom misunderstood. He turned to Susan and asked, “Who is Julia?”
And, yet, somehow, you don’t hate them. They are outlandish, they are flippant, and they are completely out-of-touch. In the best possible ways. And, when brought all together, it just works.
This is achieved, largely, because the dialogue is magical. It is bantery, it is fast-paced, and it is funny. Here’s a conversation between Frances and Joan, who have known each other for over fifty years:
Passing through a park, they saw a man and woman lying in the grass, kissing passionately. Frances asked, “Do you and Don still make love?”
“Every year on his birthday.”
“But not on your birthday.”
“Just a nice dinner for me, thank you. Sometimes we go again around Easter.”
Frances lit a cigarette. “Do you regret not having children?”
“Never once. Never for a day. Do you regret having one?”
“I’m being serious,” said Joan.
“Oh. Well, sometimes I do, to be honest.”
“But you wouldn’t change him.”
“Yes, I would.”
“But you wouldn’t change him much.”
“I’d change him quite a bit.”
“But you love him.”
“So much that it pains me.”
Joan reached for Frances’s cigarette, took a drag, and handed it back. “What do you make of Susan?” she asked.
Frances made a grim face. “No tactical intelligence whatsoever.”
“I’m sympathetic. I don’t think it would be very easy to love Malcolm.”
“It’s easy enough.”
“Don’t be such a hard case. She’s sweet.”
“What’s that worth?”
“Something, I think.”
Frances said, “I don’t want to talk about her.”
Joan held up her hands in truce. “Moving right along,” she said. “When was the last time you made love?”
Rating: a strong 4/5
The bottom line is this: French Exit is the literary equivalent of an early Wes Anderson movie. I’m talking the glory days of Rushmore (before the yellow, formulaic disappointments of Steve Zissou or Moonrise Kingdom):
It has all the things that make Rushmore delightful: the characters you love to hate, the quippy one-liners, and that perfect touch of the absurd.
I have read accounts from people who said they didn’t get this book. They are, I am certain, stodgy and humorless. You are not stodgy and humorless, are you? Good. Then go read this book.