French Exit – A Civilized Way to Say Ghosting

9780062846921   French Exit by Patrick deWitt

A French exit means leaving without saying goodbye, disappearing suddenly; we might call it ghosting.  Have you ever done it?  Shame on you if you have, but we all probably have at least been tempted.  Patrick deWitt, known for his pointed satire of human foibles as the author of The Sisters Brothers and The Undermajordomo Minor, creates another off-beat examination of our modern life and times in his novel, French Exit.  With a combination of Oscar Wilde irony, Noel Coward wit, and Wes Anderson macabre, French Exit is both funny and morbid.

Frances Price gained her reputation when she finds her wealthy philandering husband’s dead body, leaves him in bed telling noone, and goes off for a weekend ski vacation. It’s twenty years later and sixty-five year old Frances has shopped her way through all the money. Forced to leave her posh New York City surroundings and sell all her possessions, she cruises off to Paris with her son Malcolm and her cat, Small Frank, who seems to be the reincarnation of her dead husband, to live in her friend’s small vacant apartment, while she decides how to deal with her penniless situation.

Frances’s 32-year-old son Malcolm’s long-suffering fiancée, Susan, affectionately describes him as a “lugubrious toddler of a man” and a “pile of American garbage” when he breaks off their long-standing engagement before sailing away.  Malcolm drinks, steals trinkets from his hosts at parties, and generally enjoys the rich boy’s life of doing nothing.  The news that he and Frances are not only broke but moving to Paris doesn’t seem to change his attitude.

The novel continues its second half in Paris, adding more absurd characters.  The characters are terrible people and the situation they find themselves in is indefensible. But the dialogue in this comedy of manners lifts the tale with its wit, as it skewers the worst of high society – especially the prevalence of appearance over substance – a timely observation for today’s society.

Not much happens as a plot in the story, but the characters and deWitt’s sharp dialogue and wordplay will compel you to keep reading to find out how they will manage in the end.  What will become of Frances and Malcolm?  Will Frank finally get what he deserves? The ending is pretty depressing as DeWitt subliminally delivers a social commentary on finding, or losing, one’s purpose in life.

If you enjoyed deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, you will be satisfied with the absurdity and distraction of French Exit, and perhaps gasp as you laugh.

Related Review:   The Undermajordomo Minor

The Shakespeare Requirement

41JZtiym7LL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_   If you’ve never been a part of an English Department, you might think Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement is overly exaggerated, but from personal experience, let me tell you, it’s uncomfortably close to reality.  Although Schumacher had me laughing out loud at some of the shenanigans, it’s funnier when reading about it, when not inside the academic ninth circle of Dante’s hell. Schumacher gives treachery a new twist with a PhD.

Jay Fitger, first introduced in Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, is back as the reluctant new Chair of the English Department at Payne University.  He has been missing most communications because he refuses to connect to the campus-wide computer calendar system which schedules meetings, posts notices, and generally communicates anything important.  He cannot understand why people can’t just write notes and make phone calls.  Relegated to the dilapidated basement of Willard Hall with no heat in winter and wasps in summer, Fitger must convince his colleagues to approve the department’s vision statement before he will be given a budget.

The Shakespeare requirement for all English majors is doomed to be one of the many cuts from the curriculum, to make way for more user friendly fare (“The American Soap and the Telenova”);  however, the senior tenured professor of forty years and the department’s Shakespearean scholar, Dennis Cassovan, has taken a stand.  Since the vote for the vision statement must be unanimous, and never has the English Department ever agreed on anything (“Unanimity in English – it was akin to a rainbow over a field of unicorns),” the vision statement is stalled. Meanwhile, the chair of Economics, Roland Gladwell, a business type who curries corporate donors, and is not concerned whether students can read or write, is conspiring to reduce the English department to shreds.

Roland makes deals with rich benefactors, luring them with their names on buildings and tries to further dissect the English department faculty vote with bribes.  As he continues his behind the scenes treachery, his success seems insured.  If only someone could stop him.  Sadly, noble Jay Fitger is too busy being a good guy – advising a bright pregnant freshman, nursing an English faculty member who has noone to help after his surgery, trying to appease his colleagues as he continually rewrites the department vision statement.  If this were not a novel, poor Jay would be out of his job while Roland would be basking in a new office with a promotion.

But this is fiction, and the good guys can win.   With a twist of fate and a garble of names, self-serving Roland finally makes a mistake, publicly and irrevocably.   You may see it coming – at least I was hoping for it – but Schumacher deftly creates a funny scenario not only satisfying but laughable, producing one of the funniest lines in the novel.

The Shakespeare Requirement is not for everyone, but if you have ever wondered what really goes on in the halls of academia, or if you have ever been there yourself, you should read this satire.  It’s bright, funny, intelligent, righteous, and it can be cathartic.

Related Review:  Dear Committee Members

A Prescription for Comfort Books

When an Advil at breakfast no longer seemed like such a good idea to my stomach and wasn’t doing a whole lot for my aching back anyway,  focusing on reading a book was hard – but I wanted the distraction so badly.  YA books came to the rescue – from unlikely sources.

UnknownBuried in a pile of old Scholastic books, I found an Alice Hoffman story about a mermaid – Aquamarine.  Hoffman is one of my favorite writers for magical realism; I’ve read most of her books for adults and eagerly anticipate her next one.  Aquamarine is a short tale, not requiring a lot of time or attention; it flows easily into a story about two friends about to be separated at the end of the summer.  Aquamarine is a real mermaid, of course, accidentally trapped in a swimming pool after a storm.

41sKG6FpKvL._AC_UL160_Although I had started reading Eleanor and Park when it was first published in 2012, I never read past the sample pages on my iPhone.  When my ninety-two year old friend suggested we be a book club of two to discuss the ending, I downloaded the story of the two teenagers’ story of first love.  Not exactly star-crossed lovers, these two are from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, but they connect on the school bus and save each other.  A short easy read with an ending my friend says “left her with a good vibe” – glad I read it.

y450-300A recent New York Times article by author Robert Lipsyte  – “My Struggle to Write Honestly About a Test of Manhood” -alerted me to his YA book – One Fat Summer.  The book has been reframed into a movie – “The Measure of a Man,” but the book sounds better.  I have it on my iPhone to read.

“In “One Fat Summer,” my glorified semi-autobiographical hero, Bobby, stood up to the bullies and survived their beating, an important lesson for males then. Sometimes you just have to suck it up. He endured the summer in what he thought was manly fashion, hanging tough, taking risks and trusting only himself. No wonder at the end, the girl liked him back. At least in the novel.”

img_5943-e1453331441807And finally, Margery Sharp.  I found this author through an old movie with Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones in “Cluny Brown.”  Cluny Brown may be the patron saint of the distracted and Sharp perfected the easy style of story telling with  a Sophie Kinsella flair over eighty years ago.  The movie led to reading her books – funny and comforting.  I had forgotten about “The Gipsy in the Parlor,”  a two dollar purchase buried in my list of books on my iPhone.  Not a YA book, but easy reading and I am now happily and distractedly enjoying it .

Do you have a favorite YA book or some easy reading to recommend for an aching back?

 

Royal Wedding

UnknownA friend recently reminded me the Americans fought a war to get away from the English Royals, yet many of us were happy to succumb to the pomp and ceremony of the recent royal wedding between an American who gave up her religion, her career, and her country for the love of a Prince – a plot right out of the Hallmark Channel.  Most public commentators were either politely politically correct or effusively complimentary; privately, opinions on the dress, the celebrities attending, and the sermon varied – but everyone loved the Queen.

51kkZEjM6bL._AC_US218_I found Anthony Lane’s “Daily Comment” in the New Yorker this morning, and I  laughed so hard, my fascinator fell off.  After reading “Harry and Meghan Look to the Future, but Some Royals Never Change,” I decided to download his collection of New Yorker essays – Nobody’s Perfect.  Since Lane is a movie critic, the book is full of his irreverent reviews from “Indecent Proposal: to “Pearl Harbor.”  Although he skewers the plots, the actors, and producers – even Julia Roberts and Alfred Hitchcock do not escape – the book is full of honest laughs.  The Queen would approve.

Assume the Worst

In fourth grade Sister Eugene Marie taught us to lower our expectations. When you Assume the Worst – the title of a hilarious collaboration between Carl Hiaasen and Roz Chast – you won’t be disapppointed. Sometimes, you might be happily surprised.

In their “Graduation Speech You Will Never Hear,” Hiaasen offers his humorous advice, accompanied by Roz Chast’s signature illustrations.

Among my favorite lines:

“….when the ignorant outperform the attentive—dimness triumphs. The result is that we end up with dangerously unqualified leaders, and then sit around disconsolately hoping the worst of them will be taken down by scandal or maybe an exploding prostate…”

“Stupidity is a real-world pandemic from which there’s no refuge, even at college. Each year, on prestigious campuses from coast to coast, no small number of diplomas are handed out to young men and women who barely scraped by.” (accompanied by Chast’s diploma for a Bachelor of Existing.)

“Spending all your waking hours doing only what feels good is a viable life plan if you’re a Labrador retriever…”