In her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose provides some insights into her own life as a writer as she analyzes the writings of other writers she admires. Reading and rereading writers whom she loves—Dostoevski, Flaubert, Austen, Dickens, Philip Roth, Franz Kafka—Prose admits that writing, like reading, puts every word on trial for its life. Much as she reads her favorite writers closely for the ways they use words and language, in writing her own novels Prose weighs every word, every phrase, for the way it tells the story, the way it expresses emotions, the way it shocks or surprises a reader, the way it elicits a snicker or a belly laugh, the way it haunts the spirit, or the way it evokes the beauty of the world and the human soul.
In her early fiction, such as Judah the Pious, Prose turned a folklorist’s eye to the stories of rabbis and their families that she retold in her fiction. She preserved the traditions of these folktales by weaving colorful narratives of the modern world around them. While she has never abandoned the use of these tales in her fiction (she has published several books of them for children), her later novels have focused on the modern world. Bigfoot Dreams, for example, features Vera (whose name means “truth”), a writer for a supermarket tabloid who composes stories about UFO sightings, Elvis Presley’s being alive and well on Mars, and a ninety-one-year-old woman bearing a child; the novel explores the challenges that writing such fictions presents to Vera’s real life. In almost all of Prose’s novels, the characters struggle to distinguish between the real world and imaginary worlds, worlds they have very often created for themselves as places of retreat from the real world. In both Blue Angel and Goldengrove, the main characters often delude themselves about their real lives and create for themselves, if only momentarily, alternate universes in which they feel safe and secure. Much like Kafka, Prose creates a universe in which life is often turned upside down with no reason and in which men and women must right themselves in order to move through life.
Prose’s novels also often deal with the spiritual. Judah the Pious follows the adventures of the Polish Rabbi Eliezer and his attempts to help his people. Marie Laveau chronicles the life of the great New Orleans voodoo queen and her magic. In Hunters and Gatherers, Prose narrates the exploits of New Age priestess Isis Moonwagon and her followers, and Household Saints recounts the story of a Catholic family striving to understand the ways in which the spiritual impinges on the ordinary. Through the use of satire and comedy, Prose explores the spiritual longings of human beings and their attempts to reconcile those longings with everyday life. Prose’s sharp and cunning long fiction provides incisive glimpses into various situations, reflecting the humor, the sorrow, and the pathos in human lives.
Like many of Prose’s early writings, Household Saints weaves elements of folklore and legend into a tale of revelation and hope. In this stunning novel, Prose captures the intensity of family life lived in close quarters as well as the details that shape the everyday lives of the members of a close-knit social community. Her prose evokes the smells, sights, and sounds of Little Italy in New York in the 1950’s so that the setting becomes as much of a character in the novel as the men and women who live on the neighborhood’s streets. This splendid little morality tale, as many critics have observed, is reminiscent of the powerful stories of Isak Dinesen and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The novel offers readers a study in character and confronts readers with troublesome questions about the nature of evil, the character of the good, and the promise of hope. Above all, it asks readers to consider the ways in which human beings’ mundane lives can be transformed by ancient ways and by something beyond themselves.
The novel opens with the startling and comic assertion that Joseph Santangelo has won his wife, by the grace of God, in a game of pinochle. As in most of the rest of his life, Joseph, a butcher in Little Italy, has had to depend on some power outside himself to help him navigate life’s waters. Since he often discovers that little help is forthcoming from those quarters, he cheats his customers at his butcher shop and he cheats at cards. Joseph’s mother sees evil in every aspect of the world around her and prays to her saints for good health and wealth from the sausages that her son sells in his store. Joseph’s wife, Catherine, is caught between the old world and the new as she tries to teach her daughter, Theresa, the lessons of the saints of old and the lessons the girl will need to survive in the modern world. Theresa, much like her namesake, Theresa of Avila, does discover the ways in which the mundane is infused with the sacred. Although the novel ends in surprising ways, the events depicted confirm that the veneration of everyday objects can keep alive the memory of those household saints who have graced our lives.
Household Saints depicts one family’s struggles to reconcile the ordinary and the extraordinary, in this case, the spiritual. Prose offers readers a beautiful little morality tale of despair and hope, loss and redemption, and family and society.
A Changed Man
What happens when a former skinhead walks into a human...
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