Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 858
Francine Prose is a versatile and increasingly powerful voice on the American scene. She manages a successful and varied career as novelist, journalist, editor, and teacher. The daughter of Philip and Jesse Prose, both physicians, she graduated from Radcliffe College with a B.A. in 1968 and did graduate work at Harvard University. Since then she has written many books and contributed articles and reviews to most of the major American magazines and newspapers. She has also taught creative writing at Harvard and served on the faculty of the University of Arizona at Tucson, Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. In 1976, she married sculptor Howard Michels; they had two sons.
Prose went through college without any idea of earning a living and applied to graduate school directly after graduation. It was not a successful experience, and she wrote her first novel, Judah the Pious, as a possible way to make some money. Religious tolerance is its theme, and the writing moves easily between the real and the imaginary, the rational and supernatural. It is similar to traditional European fairy tales and creates a fantastic world that sets the tone of much of Prose’s early work. The book won a Jewish Book Council Award in 1973, the first of Prose’s many awards.
Her next four books continue to pursue supernatural ideas, notably Marie Laveau, based on myths surrounding the fabled woman of nineteenth century New Orleans who was reputed to possess gifts of second sight and healing powers. Focusing on magic, spells, and prophetic dreams, Marie Laveau investigates that middle ground between dreaming and waking, when the mind is full of hypnogogic reveries and reality is hard to determine. Hungry Hearts, a novel that won the Edgar Lewis Wallant Memorial Award from the Hartford Jewish Community Center in 1984, tells the story of Yiddish stage star Dinah Rappoport. Dinah appears to be possessed by a dybbuk while performing in a production of Shloime Ansky’s The Dybbuk. She must come to terms with her hungry heart in order to rid herself of this demon. Close to a parable, Hungry Hearts abounds in symmetries and parallelisms that create the momentum of a picaresque fable, in which primal issues are touched on in a folksy manner. The book provides a haunting glimpse into the supernatural and a deep speculation on the mysteries of love.
After she had written four novels, Prose turned to journalism when a friend at The New York Times hired her to write a column. On the strength of those pieces, she received offers from other magazines. Prose discovered she liked reporting; it took her out into the world and offered new experiences as well as a good source of material for her fiction. One bit of advice she gives aspiring writers is to be observant and listen to other people’s voices.
Bigfoot Dreams, Prose’s novel that came out in 1986, is about the travails of single mother Vera Perls, presented in minute psychological detail. It is a marked change from her previous novels with their spiritual themes. The plot is convoluted, the story has pace and humor, and the characters are fully drawn. However, by centering on Vera’s personal unhappiness, it comes close to the clichés that Prose had previously managed to avoid.
With her short-story collection Women and Children First, and Other Stories, Prose confirmed her new voice, concerned with the bizarre that lurks beneath the everyday. Her new theme began to emerge: the realities of contemporary life and the breakdown of society and family. Although the critics did not find all the stories in this collection successful, Prose’s second book of short stories, The Peaceable Kingdom, dealing with people whose families are falling apart, was universally praised.
During the 1990’s, Greenwillow Press published three of Prose’s books for children, one of which, You Never Know, won both the Sydney Taylor Award for young children’s books and the National Jewish Book Award. It is about the legendary thirty-six people of virtue who appear in every generation and for whom God spares the world. She also contributed numerous articles and short fiction to such periodicals as Mademoiselle, Redbook, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The Village Voice, and Commentary, covering a wide range of contemporary topics. In 1998, Prose became an editor at the arts and current events magazine DoubleTake.
In 2000, Prose’s novel Blue Angel appeared, a contemporary tale modeled on Josef von Sternberg’s classic 1930 film The Blue Angel, which stars Marlene Dietrich as a young nightclub singer who ruins an aging professor. Prose published another children’s book, and she coauthored a nonfiction book, On Writing Short Stories. After being named fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers, Prose had an opportunity to work for a year in the New York Public Library among an eclectic group of other fellows working on wide-ranging projects. This resulted in The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired. It was highly praised and proved that Prose is an accomplished writer in both fiction and nonfiction.