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The Vixen


The Vixen

There's something about the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed in 1953 after a controversial trial on charges of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union, that seems to fascinate great writers. In 1971, in E. L. Doctorow’s novel THE BOOK OF DANIEL, the fictional Isaacson family served as stand-ins for their real-life counterparts to explore the impact of the case on the surviving children. Robert Coover turned the Rosenbergs into actual characters in his 1977 novel, THE PUBLIC BURNING, a satire of Cold War America and the career of Richard Nixon.

Now, in THE VIXEN, her 22nd novel, Francine Prose has brilliantly used the Rosenbergs’ story as the foundation for a captivating coming-of-age tale about ambition, love, family loyalty, truth and lies, and the publishing business. It’s funny, warm and thoughtful, and even features a convoluted mystery plot that’s resolved with entertaining panache.

The protagonist is Simon Putnam, an intelligent, if callow, member of Harvard’s Class of 1953, who grew up on Coney Island and whose Jewish ancestry is concealed by the whimsical action of the Ellis Island immigration official who greeted his grandfather on arrival in the United States. When Simon’s dream of graduate school and an academic career focused on the study of Viking sagas is waylaid, his uncle, a well-known critic and public intellectual, helps him secure a job at the prestigious publishing house of Landry, Landry and Bartlett.

"Prose has brilliantly used the Rosenbergs’ story as the foundation for a captivating coming-of-age tale about ambition, love, family loyalty, truth and lies, and the publishing business."

Sentenced to Dickensian servitude managing the slush pile, the collection of unsolicited submissions “that kept growing, no matter what I did,” Simon conscientiously wades through manuscripts like Tears in the Apple Pie, a memoir by a housewife whose husband ran off with his great-aunt, knowing there are no gold nuggets to be discovered amid the dross. But despite the tedium, he dreams of bigger things: “I wanted a successful --- an enviable --- career,” he confesses. “I wanted to find my place in the literary world. I wanted to be someone. Preferably someone like Warren.”

“Warren,” in this case, is Warren Landry, the publishing house’s director (despite the name, he’s the firm’s sole Landry), who comes by his New England WASP credentials honestly and worked in psychological warfare for the CIA’s predecessor during World War II. For a moment, Simon believes that redemption may be at hand when Landry appears in his office with the manuscript of a novel entitled The Vixen, the Patriot and the Fanatic for the lowly junior assistant editor to edit. His boss explains that the commercial success of the novel is essential to the survival of the publisher, one that’s highly regarded for its fine literary taste.

It’s bad enough that The Vixen is an unreadable potboiler about the Rosenberg case that portrays “Esther Rosenstein” as a nymphomaniac Russian spy along with her cuckolded husband “Junius” and is untethered even accidentally to any facts of the case. Simon is also haunted by the knowledge that his mother grew up with Ethel Rosenberg in the same Lower East Side tenement building and by Ethel’s plea in a final letter to her lawyer: “You will see to it that our names are kept bright and unsullied by lies” as he reflects on her portrayal. He’s determined to transform the “grotesque insult to the Rosenbergs’ memory” into something respectable, even as he recognizes that effort will doom its sales prospects.

For all his misgivings, Simon is smitten by the jacket photograph of the novel’s author, Anya Partridge, a frustrated actress who’s living in a “minimum security asylum” that Simon thinks of as a “country club with nurses.” Once the two meet, THE VIXEN ignites, especially as their relationship crosses the line from professional to personal, including one unforgettable scene in the Terror Tomb at Coney Island that launches an affair for which the term “acrobatic” might be the only apt one.

In a recent New York Times interview, Prose observed, “I’m very conscious of keeping the reader’s interest. And I’m easily bored --- I’m easily bored by books, I hate to say. And so I want there to be some sort of suspense or some sort of payoff.”

Prose lives by her own creed, because there are no boring moments in this energetic novel. Whether he’s wrestling with his conscience about his role in publishing the dreadful novel, thrashing about in a tangled romantic life that includes his infatuation with Anya and a crush on Landry, Landry, and Bartlett’s chief publicist Elaine Geller, or agonizing how his involvement with The Vixen, if discovered, could permanently damage his relationship with his loving parents, Simon is an appealing, believable narrator whose movement from naivete to maturity is profoundly entertaining.

Prose plants a healthy collection of MacGuffins to keep the novel’s plot moving. And while Simon’s moral quandary is undeniably real, it’s leavened with sharp humor, as when he admits he “wanted to be one of those to whom success came easily,” or acknowledges that “[b]eneath my youthful diffidence and insecurity lurked the egomania of a Roman emperor.”

There are many moments when one can imagine Philip Roth or Joseph Heller smiling at Prose’s ingenuity and verve. She long ago secured her literary reputation, and THE VIXEN will only serve to burnish it.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on July 2, 2021

The Vixen
by Francine Prose

  • Publication Date: June 28, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0063012154
  • ISBN-13: 9780063012158