Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2268
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 rights organization and declares that he is a changed man? What happens when this young man declares that he wants to help prevent other young men from making the choices he made in the past? Should the organization be extremely wary and suspicious that the newly changed individual is lying, or should the organization and its founders embrace this person and allow him to work to bring about good in the world? In her typically satiric fashion, Prose raises these and other questions in her often hilarious, and always bitingly incisive, novel A Changed Man.
One spring afternoon, young Vincent walks into the offices of World Brotherhood Watch, a human rights organization run by Meyer Maslow, a Holocaust survivor. Vincent, a former neo-Nazi whose arms are covered with Nazi tattoos, claims to have been transformed and wants to change his life. Vincent tells Maslow that he would like to convince other young men not to choose the life of a neo-Nazi but instead to choose a life of moderation and charity. Can Maslow afford to believe him? Vincent appears at a time in Maslow’s life when Maslow himself is beginning to question his own effectiveness at stopping intolerance and injustice. As the plot progresses, Vincent begins to transform everyone around him. Much like Albert Camus’s Dr. Rieux in La Peste (1947; The Plague, 1948), Vincent transforms the world around him through his actions and his active commitment to social justice. He is no mere cheerleader for the right ways; rather, he leads others to perform those right actions. Maslow himself is eventually transformed and regains and renews his dedication to bringing an end to anti-Semitism and intolerance. Bonnie Kalen, the fund-raiser for the organization, who has been devoted to Maslow over the years, warily eyes Vincent from the beginning but is won over by his commitment and honesty. Bonnie’s son, Danny, also changes his life after an encounter with Vincent.
With her characteristic humor, Prose raises challenging questions about human nature and the nature of the world. Is it possible to overcome evil? Is it possible to change for the good and for that change to last and to influence the lives of others? What is the nature of morality? What does it mean to be human? How can one determine what it means to live a moral life? Prose couches these questions in a fast-paced, satiric narrative that asks readers to consider how they live their own lives.
From Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954) and Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey (1947) to Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution (1954) and Richard Russo’s Straight Man (1997), the academic novel has often comically portrayed the ways in which power relations between professors and students go awry. Most of the main characters in these novels are older males who take advantage of younger female students who have become enamored of them. These professors find themselves losing not only their sexual fire but also their desire for the subjects about which they were once passionate. Prose’s Blue Angel joins the rank of these campus novels, but her novel is more than simply a story about the lust of an older professor for a younger student; it revolves around themes of loneliness and insecurity. In this work Prose also explores the banality of an educational system that at once encourages such relationships by the passions inherent in its very structure and condemns these dynamic relationships through static sets of rules that do not account for human passions.
Ted Swenson, a professor of creative writing at a small, rural New England college, is going through the motions of teaching and writing. It has been years since he has written a novel, and his fame has steadily declined as his name has disappeared from the bookstore shelves. His new class is more frustrating than exciting, and most of his students are writing stories about having sex with dead animals. Living with his wife in an isolated wooded area near the campus and estranged from his only child, Swenson exists in a bubble, striving vainly now and then to work on a new novel and to impart some wisdom to his students. His life is revived by one of those students, Angela Argo, a purple-haired waif whose own novel seduces Swenson with its mature prose and its depiction of a relationship between an older man and a younger woman. As Angela seeks his help with her novel, Swenson becomes more and more entangled in a web of lust and infatuation. Filled with stereotypical characters from a college campus—the haughty dean, the feminist English professor, the English professor who tried to live as if his real life were determined by the elements of literary theory—Blue Angel is a compelling satire of academic novels as well as an examination of loss and loneliness.
Prose ingeniously takes Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 movie The Blue Angel, starring Marlene Dietrich, as the model for her campus novel. In the film, an older professor becomes so enamored of a burlesque dancer that he loses everything. In Prose’s novel, Swenson watches this film over and over for some clue to his own demise and ponders how one man can so easily lose everything in the quest for the unreachable. Unlike other campus novels, Prose’s novel astutely explores the challenges of life in an artificial environment such as a college campus and the foibles of the men and women who live there.
Coming of age in a small town where everyone knows your every move is hard enough to do, but coming of age in such an environment grows even harder when you must face that experience without your best friend, who has died unexpectedly. Such is the life that thirteen-year-old Nico must face in Prose’s novel Goldengrove. One Sunday in early May, Nico and her older sister, Margaret, are spending the afternoon lazily drifting on Mirror Lake, as they have on many Sunday afternoons before. The novel’s opening sentence almost warns of the ominous events to follow, for Nico reflects that for many years her and her sister’s lives were as calm and transparent as the waters. On this Sunday afternoon, the waters open to swallow Margaret forever—she drowns while making the short swim back to the dock near their house. Suddenly, Nico must navigate life’s rough waters alone, and she struggles to understand the mysteries of life and death that have left her alone and that have snatched her sister from her.
Nico’s mother escapes into drugs and drink as she tries to blunt her feelings of loss, and Nico’s father, who runs a bookstore called Goldengrove in their town, retreats into his attempts to write a novel about an apocalyptic religious sect. Both parents are so engrossed in their own grief that neither can help Nico with her own struggles. Seeking refuge from the tragedy that has changed her life, Nico starts to hang around with Margaret’s boyfriend, Aaron, as both of them try to grow closer to her dead sister. In a summer full of halting attempts to recover from her monumental loss, Nico learns about the inadequacy of love, the disappointments of hope, the shortcomings of family and friends, and the insufficiency of both emotional and rational responses to loss.
Prose wrote Goldengrove as her own mother was dying (the novel is dedicated to her) and as she was struggling with her own losses. The novel takes its name from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child,” which features a young woman whose mourning over the falling of leaves in Goldengrove is actually a mourning over the loss of her youth. Prose effectively uses this poem as a springboard into an extended meditation on a young girl’s realization that she is alone in this world and must face its joys and sorrows without the consolation of her parents or her friends.
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