After a month of daily novellas throughout May (many of which were quite heavy in subject if not in actual weight) followed by reading Ulysses for the first time (which was heavy in both senses) I was in need of some light, comic, bookish palate cleansers. Thankfully, an enormous TBR can always provide 🙂
Firstly French Exit by Patrick de Witt (2018), which induced an existential crisis because I thought I read his novel The Sisters Brothers fairly recently, but when I checked it turns out it was nine years ago. Where is my life going??
Anyway, once I stopped panicking about my imminent death, I sat down to this short novel which the cover quotes assured me was funny/comic/Noel Coward-esque etc. And it was, but there was a strong vein of sadness running through it too.
Frances Price lives with her adult son Malcolm in New York, and seems determined to blow her late husband’s ill-gotten gains as rapidly as possible. Eventually it reaches the point where they will be evicted from their townhouse:
“It was grotesque to see a person such as Frances exposed in this way, and Mr Baker was peeved to be a party to it. He told her, ‘I spoke to you about this as a possibility for seven years, and as an eventuality for three. What did you think was going to happen? What was your plan?’
She exhaled. ‘My plan was to die before the money ran out. But I kept and keep not dying, and here I am.’”
So Frances comes up with another plan, to leg it to Paris and live in her friend Joan’s apartment. Malcolm will go with her, because it doesn’t occur to him to do otherwise, despite his girlfriend Susan’s weary protestations:
“Malcolm was unafraid of social discomfort, which is not to say he courted it; but it was common enough that he assumed it requisite, and endured it without grievance.”
The other presence on this international adventure will be their cat, Small Frank, named after Frances’ husband. There’s more to Small Frank than meets the eye, a fact accepted by Frances, Malcolm, and the psychic Madeleine that they meet on the cruise ship:
“Madeleine stood. ‘Sorry.’ Pointing to Small Frank, she asked, ‘Do you not know?’
‘We know.’ said Frances.”
Although seemingly set in contemporary times, French Exit has an atemporal quality. The cruise ship, the lack of mobile phones, use of paper money (admittedly euros not francs) and no reference to the internet mean it could easily be many years earlier.
There’s a cast of eccentric characters both on the ship and in the French capital, but this stayed the right side of idiosyncratic for me, without seeming self-consciously quirky. Frances is wonderfully spiky which stops the story being too saccharine.
As we learn more about her life and Malcolm’s upbringing, there is a lot to consider about the emotional damage people can wreak on each other. However, as Frances and Malcolm adjust to their new surroundings what comes through most strongly is the human need for acceptance and friendship, and all we can give one another if we’re open to it.
The sadness in French Exit stopped me from wholeheartedly viewing this as a comic novel, and so it wasn’t quite what I expected. But this is no bad thing, and I found it a delightful, fully-rounded tale of unique individuals working out how to get by alongside other people, while still setting their own terms.
“The heart takes care of itself. We allow ourselves contentment; our heart brings us ease in its good time.”
French Exit was made into a film in 2021. I’ve not seen it but the dialogue in this trailer is straight out of the book:
Early Morning Riser (2021) by Katherine Heiny is not my usual sort of read at all, but Susan’s review made it sound so enticing that I snapped up a copy when I saw it in the charity shop. I’m glad I did, because it was just what I was looking for at this moment in time: a well-written book about idiosyncratic people, muddling through alongside each other, not sentimental and not bitter either.
The story begins in 2002, with young teacher Jane meeting Boyne City’s local lothario Duncan:
“He was of medium height, medium build, wearing nothing more distinctive than jeans and a denim shirt, yet he seemed to stand out vividly, like the subject of a photo with a blurred background.”
They start dating and there is much humour derived from Duncan’s past with just about every woman in town, and the neighbouring towns too. He’s not manipulative or unpleasant, and he seems pretty honest (unless you’re waiting for him to finish restoring your furniture) – although he probably doesn’t have much choice in a town where everyone knows everyone else’s business.
“It had seemed even before dinner that Mrs Elgin had wanted to say something, and finally she laid down her fork and said to Duncan, ‘I’m sorry but, but how is it possible that you don’t remember having sex with me after a Grateful Dead concert in nineteen ninety-four?’
Doctor Elgin was struggling to open a bottle of prosecco, and at that moment his thumb slipped and the cork popped off with a surprised-sounding ping.
Duncan looked up from his plate. ‘I went to thirteen Grateful Dead concerts in 1994. Can you be more specific?’”
What I thought was clever is that Heiny doesn’t try and convince the reader of Duncan’s charm. Often when there is a love interest, authors try and get the reader onside, and of course, if you’re not as keen on the character as those in the story are, it’s not going to work. Instead, everyone in Early Morning Riser is presented simply as they are, and no-one is expected to be otherwise.
This includes Duncan’s domestic-goddess ex-wife Aggie, her inflexible husband Gary, and warm-hearted Jimmy, Duncan’s apprentice who has an unspecified learning difficulty. Jane also makes a good friend, Freida, who miraculously is among the very few women not to have experienced the sexual delights of Duncan:
“Freida settled herself on the couch next to Jane and took out her mandolin. Part of being friends with Freida meant getting used to her playing the mandolin all the time – softly if people were talking, louder if they weren’t. If the conversation got heated, she would strum faster; if they were all tired, she would play something soothing. It was like having a constant soundtrack to your life, or maybe a mandolin-playing Greek chorus, because sometimes she sang, too – little snatches of lyrics that always seem to fit the occasion.”
Personally that would drive me to absolute distraction, but the people of Boyne City are much nicer than me and don’t seem to mind.
We follow everyone up to 2019; through births, deaths, joys and griefs. It is a novel resolutely about ordinary life and the value of such. People behave well and behave badly. They make wise decisions and poor decisions. They’re kind to each other and not so kind. They’re recognisably human.
“The joy is in the dailiness. The joy is having someone who will stop you from hitting the snooze button on the alarm endlessly. The joy is the smell of someone else’s cooking. The joy is knowing you can call someone and ask him to pick up a gallon of milk on his way over. The joy is having someone to watch Kitchen Nightmares with, because it really is no good when you watch it by yourself. The joy is hoping (however unrealistically) that someone else will unload the dishwasher. The joy is having someone listen to the weird cough your car has developed and reassure you that it doesn’t sound expensive. The joy is saying how much you want a glass of wine and having someone tell you, ‘Go ahead you deserve it!’ (Although it’s possible to achieve the last one with a pet and a little imagination.)”
Although the relationship between Jane and Duncan centres the story, romantic love is not the focus of Early Morning Riser. Rather, it is about family in all its guises: blood relatives, children, parents, lovers, friends, those we choose and those who choose us, those we somehow end up sharing lives with and we’re not quite sure how or why. It’s a warm-hearted read and an absolute joy.
To end, in honour of Freida, a song that goes heavy on the mandolin: