It’s always a pleasure to read a book by Francine Prose, a prolific author whose range is great and talent still greater. But even amongst the praise for her oeuvre, her latest novel, The Vixen, is singularly remarkable. In this book, Prose masterfully interweaves young love, Jewishness, ambition, and sordid, conspiratorial U.S. intelligence through the trial and conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
The novel takes place in the 1950s, an era shadowed by the paranoia of the Red Scare and the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, both sent to the electric chair on the grounds of betraying American nuclear secrets to the Soviet Russians. The protagonist, Simon Putnam, is — despite the Anglo surname — a smart Jewish boy from Coney Island, whose mother was a close childhood friend of Ethel. His family watches the Rosenberg trial and punishment with horror and sorrow — particularly Ethel, a round-faced, bow-lipped wife and mother who is ostensibly guilty of typing a few damning documents. Leaving Brooklyn far behind him, Ivy-educated and ambitious Simon accepts a job at a venerable New York publishing company. It is the quintessential upstart’s rise from the cozy to the cold: from the Jewish enclave of his childhood to Landry, Landry, and Bartlett, run by the aristocratic WASPS Simon most wishes to impress.
Unfortunately, however, Simon’s first assignment is to work on a forthcoming novel called The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic, a purple-prosed page-turner with a protagonist based on none other than Ethel Rosenberg. Using pseudonyms that are laughably similar to the real names, the book depicts “Esther Rosenstein” as a slinky, Soviet-loving sexpot whose life revolves around seducing powerful Americans and snatching all their nuclear secrets. Apart from its blatant misrepresentation of history, The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic is outrageously bad, as this hilarious excerpt shows:
Like a handsome ocean liner slicing through the waves,
the attorney general sailed through the prison hallway.
He seemed confident, but he was on edge. He was finally
meeting Esther Rosenstein, the notoriously buxom and
beautiful Mata Hari who’d almost slithered through the
dragnet the FBI dropped around her.
Not surprisingly, Simon wonders why his literary boss, the aristocratic Preston Bartlett, is so eager to serve such packaged junk (however beautiful and buxom) to the American reading public. What Simon discovers about publishing as propaganda is eye-opening, not only to him but to us as well.
Simon’s heart is broken not only by his professional contretemps, but also by a series of women to whom he grows variously attached — an older colleague at work, an ex-employee whose job he’s taken, and Anya, the mysterious, ebony-haired author of The Vixen, The Patriot, and the Fanatic (her very name seems Slavic and exotic). With each of these connections, Simon’s character develops, and Prose sensitively depicts the growth of his soul and the construction of his ethos. He learns to question, to look below smooth surfaces, to care, and to take a moral stance. Ultimately, this book is about fleeting allegiances, crushing reversals, and the loyalties that, by contrast, never shift.
Sonia Taitz, a Ramaz, Yale Law, and Oxford graduate, is the author of five books, including the acclaimed “second generation” memoir, The Watchmaker’s Daughter, and the novel, Great with Child. Praised for her warmth and wit by Vanity Fair, The New York Times Book Review, People and The Chicago Tribune, she is currently working on a novel about the Zohar, the mystical source of Jewish transcendence.