The Vix­en

  • Review
By – July 12, 2021

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.

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