Nominative determinism is the term for that pleasing accord you occasionally find between name and profession: the immigration minister named Brokenshire, the sprinter named Bolt, and so on. Apparently, there was once a Republican candidate for the California state assembly called Rich White. And how wonderful for there to be a comic novelist called Patrick deWitt.
Booker-shortlisted for his western pastiche, The Sisters Brothers, and praised as a latter-day P.G. Wodehouse, the Canadian author certainly seems sure of his calling. My copy of French Exit opens with a letter explaining that each character in his fourth novel ‘deliver[ed] on his or her promise, or beyond his or her promise’. Is it ever a good idea for an author to preface their review copies with such hubristic assertions? For just as there’s no reason to think that Dr Hartt is a better cardiologist than Dr Butter, there’s no guarantee that a deWitt will deliver the comic goods.
Billed as a ‘Tragedy of Manners’, French Exit follows a wealthy widow and her adult son as they face financial ruin. Frances Price is a 65-year-old socialite infamous among Manhattan’s elite for her ‘fearful beauty’, snobbery and scandalous behaviour: 20 years ago, she discovered the dead body of her ruthless lawyer husband and promptly went skiing. ‘It’s fun to run from one brightly burning disaster to the next,’ she tells her only child, Malcolm, by way of an explanation.
Malcolm is a 32-year-old ‘lugubrious toddler of a man’, large, unkempt and still residing with his waspy mother in what his frustrated fiancée, Susan, refers to as ‘that mausoleum you call a life’. But now they’ve frittered away (almost) all of her husband Franklin’s money and find themselves reliant on the goodwill of Frances’s only friend, Joan, who owns a pokey apartment in Paris, where the pair flee with their cat, Small Frank, and €170,000 cash.