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BookBrowse Reviews The Vixen by Francine Prose

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The Vixen

by Francine Prose

The Vixen by Francine Prose X
The Vixen by Francine Prose
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jun 2021, 336 pages

    Paperback:
    Jun 2022, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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An editorial assistant at a well-respected publishing house in 1950s Manhattan is tasked with editing a bodice-ripper novel based on the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Recent Harvard graduate Simon Putnam has been rejected from grad school and has thus returned to his parents' place in Coney Island for the foreseeable future. It's the summer of 1953, and Simon and his parents spend their evenings devotedly watching the news coverage of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's trial — an event that is especially emotionally charged for the Putnam family. Like the Rosenbergs, the Putnams are Jewish, and Ethel Rosenberg is a former classmate of Simon's mother. Contrary to the predominant social attitude about the Rosenbergs, Simon and his parents watch with horror and disbelief as the execution takes place.

A year later, Simon is working as an editorial assistant at a top publishing house in Manhattan (a job he secured through a family connection), when a rather odd manuscript lands on his desk. Fully titled The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic and written by beautiful-yet-reclusive author Anya Partridge, The Vixen is essentially a bodice-ripper novelization of the Rosenberg case (featuring protagonists Junius and Esther Rosenstein). Respectful of his mother's connection to Ethel, Simon begins his assignment with trepidation, and the more he reads, the more his fears are confirmed: The Vixen is not only poorly written, but also insensitive and dehumanizing to a woman whose last words to her lawyer play frequently through his head: "You shall see to it that our names are kept bright and unsullied by lies."

Refusing to edit the manuscript isn't really an option for Simon. He's desperate to prove his worth to his boss, who confides he suspects The Vixen will be the sort of commercial success that will bring in some much-needed cash flow to the company. Instead, Simon seeks out the elusive Anya to persuade her to reconsider her portrayal of Ethel as a heartless femme-fatale figure.

Francine Prose's The Vixen, unlike its fictional counterpart, is a thoughtful, incisive commentary on the relationship between stories and reality, and the moral obligations of the individual when it comes to retelling history. Set during the height of McCarthyism, Prose captures the fraught atmosphere of distrust that pervaded the U.S. — Simon's inability to confide his true thoughts about the Rosenbergs to anyone makes his dilemma even heavier. Far from an altruistic protagonist, Simon is driven by a deep-seated shame for his Coney Island upbringing and a desire to prove himself competent, easily forgoing the moral high ground of refusing to work on the book. He admits, "I wanted an interesting life more than I wanted to do what was right." The novel is punctuated by guilt and meditations on culpability, but its central ethical quandary unfolds in a gritty and unexpected fashion.

The Vixen is a tense, turbulent book — from its depictions of insidious Cold War paranoia to its vivid descriptions of New York publishing, it's an engrossing, immersive read. When Simon starts to uncover the reasons why he, specifically, was selected to edit this manuscript, the novel takes a bit of a turn for the outlandish, so keep in mind going in that there's a quasi-spy-thriller element that will begin to reveal itself midway through. But it's an undoubtedly fun, well-paced book — both absorbing and subtly affecting.

Reviewed by Rachel Hullett

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in July 2021, and has been updated for the July 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Read-Alikes

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