I always pick up a Francine Prose novel with trepidation, only because of the commandments in her wonderful 2011 guide, How to Read Like a Writer. Her rules include: read very slowly, assume the author chose every word for a reason, know that every mention of a book or a piece of music is laced with meaning, and assume every bit of dialogue is packed with significant clues about the character’s inner self.
That can be a tough order, but it paid off handsomely in reading Prose’s latest novel, The Vixen. While the novel has many comic elements, it is built on some serious ethical issues, including what boundaries ordinary people set for themselves when asked to do something unethical at work, either to keep a job or further their careers.
The novel begins on June 19, 1953, with the espionage trial of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Jewish parents of our protagonist, Simon Putnam, are appalled when the Rosenbergs are found guilty and executed. Simon is well aware of their hurt and indignation, so he faces a major dilemma a few years later his boss at a New York publisher asks him to edit a tawdry novel that turns the Rosenbergs into evil but comic dupes. As naïve as he is smart, there’s no way Simon can handle the challenge. The novel he’s asked to edit (really just to give it a quick once over to smooth out the rough spots), is called “The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic.” He soon realizes it’s a terrible bodice ripper that makes Ethel into a sexual predator and leaves no doubt of the Rosenbergs’ guilty. The publishing house Simon works for is actually known for championing the highest form of literary fiction, but it’s in desperate financial straits, and Simon is told that this blockbuster-to-be is a necessary evil to earn enough money to keep publishing the good stuff.
Prose has lots of fun quoting excerpts of the terrible novel, but it’s no fun for Simon, who soon discovers that the author is in a mental institution, which doesn’t stop him from falling in love with her. But nothing is at it seems.
The novel is both funny and meaningful, especially for anyone the least bit familiar with the publishing industry. And the twists and turns in the last third of the book are worth the price of admission.
Reading slowly and carefully is especially important if you pick up Elizabeth Strout‘s new novel, Oh William! I don’t think I’ve ever read a more intimate work of fiction—intimate in the sense that Strout has adopted a first-person voice that brings you closer to the narrative than I would have thought possible. It’s as if you’re the narrator’s best friend and you’re meeting over a few drinks and she’s just talking to you about her life, in that honest, show all your faults self that only true friends can do with each other. The narrator is none other than Lucy Barton, who appeared in two earlier Strout novels, and characters from other novels, including the Burgess Boys make cameo appearances.
The book is just remarkable in its casual tone, which is really deceptive, because the subject matter is quite intense. The novel is in the form of a fictional memoir and is presented as one long chapter (236 pages), but divided into much shorter sections, some as short as a single sentence. Marriage is the overarching theme, but there is so much more than that on Lucy’s mind.
One of Strout’s talents is her ability to take the ordinary events of life and present them with enormous understanding and insight. She has such a keen eye for how people live and love and lose and fear and get lonely and misunderstand others and are shaped by our pasts—and she hits so many of these right on the head that you have to sit up and take notice. And the marvelous way she uses language, including the pauses and false starts in conversation, are a joy to behold. I can’t say enough about this book. Just go read it for yourself.
You can read a little more quickly (and in fact you can’t help but read more quickly) when you pick up The Plot, the bestseller by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Several of my friends recommended this for me because I’m a writer, as is the protagonist, Jacob Finch Bonner. But this is a book for readers as well as writers.
The novel opens as Jacob struggles to work up enthusiasm for the creative writing workshop he teaches in a low-level MFA program. He’s also struggling—failing, actually—to write his second novel, following a mildly successful debut that won more critical praise than Amazon stars. In short order, Jacob comes upon an idea for a remarkable new plot and when he writes that book a few years later, it becomes a huge bestseller. But something is not quite right, and while The Plot starts out as still one more novel about a failed writer, it soon becomes a roller coaster of a thriller. While the plot is clearly the thing (in every sense), it’s hard not to get caught up in Jacob’s personality and behavior as one who can’t enjoy his own success. He is an endearing but flawed character, richly drawn in a way that will make you feel all the anxiety he feels.
There are several big twists and turns as the novel progresses but ample clues to help careful readers stay engaged and draw their own conclusions. I was proud of myself for guessing the first twist—and the second—but like all good thrillers, there’s always another one around the corner, and every time you think you’ve figured it out, you discover there’s something you missed. Korelitz uses her plot to dissect writers and the publishing industry with a quite-sharp knife. But that’s part of the fun (even for a writer) and she clearly knows whereof she writes.