Summary and book reviews of The Vixen by Francine Prose

The Vixen

by Francine Prose

The Vixen by Francine Prose X
The Vixen by Francine Prose
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  • Published:
    Jun 2021, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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Book Summary

Critically acclaimed, bestselling author Francine Prose returns with a dazzling new novel set in the glamorous world of 1950s New York publishing, the story of a young man tasked with editing a steamy bodice-ripper based on the recent trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg - an assignment that will reveal the true cost of entering that seductive, dangerous new world.

It's 1953, and Simon Putnam, a recent Harvard graduate newly hired by a distinguished New York publishing firm, has entered a glittering world of three-martini lunches, exclusive literary parties, and old-money aristocrats in exquisitely tailored suits, a far cry from his loving, middle-class Jewish family in Coney Island.

But Simon's first assignment—editing The Vixen, the Patriot and the Fanatic, a lurid bodice-ripper improbably based on the recent trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, a potboiler intended to shore up the firm's failing finances—makes him question the cost of admission. Because Simon has a secret that, at the height of the Red Scare and the McCarthy hearings, he cannot reveal: his beloved mother was a childhood friend of Ethel Rosenberg's. His parents mourn Ethel's death.

Simon's dilemma grows thornier when he meets The Vixen's author, the startlingly beautiful, reckless, seductive Anya Partridge, ensconced in her opium-scented boudoir in a luxury Hudson River mental asylum. As mysteries deepen, as the confluence of sex, money, politics and power spirals out of Simon's control, he must face what he's lost by exchanging the loving safety of his middle-class Jewish parents' Coney Island apartment for the witty, whiskey-soaked orbit of his charismatic boss, the legendary Warren Landry. Gradually Simon realizes that the people around him are not what they seem, that everyone is keeping secrets, that ordinary events may conceal a diabolical plot—and that these crises may steer him toward a brighter future.

At once domestic and political, contemporary and historic, funny and heartbreaking, enlivened by surprising plot turns and passages from Anya's hilariously bad novel, The Vixen illuminates a period of history with eerily striking similarities to the current moment. Meanwhile it asks timeless questions: How do we balance ambition and conscience? What do social mobility and cultural assimilation require us to sacrifice? How do we develop an authentic self, discover a vocation, and learn to live with the mysteries of love, family, art, life and loss?

Chapter 1

In the winter of 1954, I was assigned to edit a novel, The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic, a steamy bodice-ripper based on the Rosenberg case.

The previous year, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for allegedly selling atomic secrets to the Russians. The horror of the electric chair and the chance that the couple were innocent had ignited outrage in this country and abroad. Protestors took to the streets in sympathy for the sweet-faced housewife whose only crime may have been typing a document for her brother, David Greenglass.

But according to the manuscript that landed on my desk, the Rosenbergs (in the novel, the Rosensteins) were Communist traitors, guilty of espionage and treason, eager to soak their hands in the blood of the millions who would die because of their crime.

The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic, Anya Partridge's debut novel, portrayed the Rosensteins as cold-blooded spies, masterminding a vast conspiracy to destroy the American way of life...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Francine Prose's The Vixen 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. Overall, it's an undoubtedly fun, well-paced book — both absorbing and subtly affecting...continued

Full Review Members Only (529 words).

(Reviewed by Rachel Hullett).

Media Reviews

Washington Post
Depending on the light, it's either a very funny serious story or a very serious funny story. But no matter how you turn it, The Vixen offers an illuminating reflection on the slippery nature of truth in America, then and now...As a work of historical speculation, this is unlikely. But as a satire of the publishing industry, it's hilarious.

Shelf Awareness
Like a fable, the story is animated by the tug-of-war between principle and personal ambition. Prose has crafted an inspired work of fiction that, while staying within a realistic framework, does for an invented New York publishing house what Ira Levin did for a certain Manhattan apartment building in Rosemary's Baby.

Lit Hub
I know book people are wont to throw around the phrase 'compulsively readable,' but in the case of Francine Prose's The Vixen, I can't help myself. I read it with compulsion...Come for the propulsive mystery and sentence-level tautness, stay for the 1950s publishing mise-en-scène.

New York Times
Francine Prose writes sentences that make me laugh out loud. Her insights, the subtle ones and the two-by-fours, make me shake my head in despair, in surprise, in heartfelt agreement. The gift of her work to a reader is to create for us what she creates for her protagonist: the subtle unfolding, the moment-by-moment process of discovery as we read and change, from not knowing and even not wanting to know or care, to seeing what we had not seen and finding our way to the light of the ending.

Kirkus Reviews
Smart, assured fiction from a master storyteller and thoughtful social commentator.

Library Journal
Prose's exuberant, lighthearted novel immerses the reader in 1950s ambience, yet it's full of winks and nods to the current political climate. Simon, our overheated narrator, pulls us along as he stumbles into Cold War intrigue, and we're never sure which way the plot will turn until literally the last sentence. What a delightful read!

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Prose holds up a mirror to a fractured culture in this dazzling take on America's tendency to persecute, then lionize, its most subversive figures...a slow-burn mystery...This is Prose at the top of her game.

Booklist (starred review)
Prose ingeniously takes on publishing, the fallout of WWII, and McCarthyism in a gloriously astute, skewering, and hilarious bildungsroman...Mordant, incisive, and tenderhearted, Prose presents an intricately realized tale of a treacherous, democracy-threatening time of lies, demagoguery, and prejudice that is as wildly exhilarating as the Cyclone, Simon's beloved Coney Island roller coaster.

Author Blurb Maria Semple, New York Times bestselling author of Where'd You Go, Bernadette
A rollicking trickster of a novel, wondrously funny and wickedly addictive.

Author Blurb Samantha Hunt, author of Mr. Lightfoot
Prose is a powerhouse. The Vixen will fascinate and complicate the histories that haunt our present moments. Like Coney Island's Cyclone, this story tumbles and tangles a reader's grip of reality. It's told with the heart, humor and daring of a true artist. Prose's Vixen is a triumph and a trip though the solid magic that books make real.

Author Blurb Yiyun Li, author of Must I Go
In an enthralling new novel, Francine Prose, a maestro storyteller, interrogates the murky symbiotic relationship between history and individuals: Is it the senselessness of history that undermines and rewrites each person's life story, or, is it a collection of cruelties from individuals that change the course of history? Equally suspenseful and philosophical, The Vixen is both a page tuner set in an era of espionage, conspiracy and mistrust, and an exploration of one of the sustaining factors of civilization that also has to sustain perennial attack from politics and history: human decency.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

black and white photo of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg separated by a wire partitionOn June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York, having been convicted of spying for the Soviet Union.

The Rosenbergs met in the Young Communist League in 1936 and married in 1939. Julius worked for the U.S. Army Signal Corps as an engineer, and though Ethel (née Greenglass) had trained in her early life to become an actress and singer, she eventually took a position as a secretary. The couple had two sons, Michael and Robert, born in 1943 and 1947, respectively.

In 1942, Julius was recruited to spy for the Soviet Union by spymaster Semyon Semyonov, and in 1944, he became a recruiter himself. One of the people he recruited was his brother-in-law, David ...

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