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Review: The Vixen, by Francine Prose
Harper, 2021. 316 pp. $26

In June 1953, the federal government executes Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for giving atomic weapons secrets to the Soviets. Probably few families take the news harder than the Putnams, a Coney Island family, Jewish despite the name. Simon, the only child, worries about his mother, who grew up with Ethel and suffers debilitating migraines, possibly because of the political and cultural atmosphere.

With Joseph McCarthy riding high and roughshod over civil liberties, due process, and common decency, conformity means safety. You never know who will attack you, or why, only that suspicion, fear, and paranoia have gripped country. That’s enough to give any sober citizen headaches.

Young Simon wangles an entry-level job at a Manhattan publisher through a family connection. His assignment is to go through the “slush pile,” unsolicited submissions, and write rejection letters for them. Presumably, he’ll start to learn the business that way.

One manuscript, however, has been marked for greatness, and Simon is to edit it. Titled The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic, the novel portrays a thinly disguised Ethel Rosenberg as a sex-crazed Soviet agent who does her best to seduce her all-American nemesis and destroy the nation at the same time. Naturally, Simon’s appalled, doubly so when his boss swears him to secrecy and confides that The Vixen will save the company, known for producing literary masterpieces but now on the brink of financial ruin.

The photograph taken of Ethel Rosenberg on her arrest, August 1950 (courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Prose’s novel, a trenchant satire about power, truth telling, and the 1950s reads like a psychological thriller once it gets going, with obvious yet unstated parallels to the present day. Our hero never knows what’s true or not, or what consequences the lies might have. And his life is based on lies. As a Jew at a white-shoe firm, he’s trying to pass. His boss, Warren Landry, a charismatic, narcissistic, vicious bully and womanizer, repels Simon to the core, yet the younger man envies the elder for his power and sense of command. Warren also offers drama and force, commodities that Simon can only wish he understood:

Standing in my doorway with his arms braced against both sides, Warren was partly backlit by the low-wattage bulbs in the corridor. He had a Scrooge-like obsession keeping our electric bills low. His white hair haloed him like a Renaissance apostle, and the costly wool of his dark gray suit gave off a pale luminescent shimmer. He was a few years older than my parents, but he belonged to another species that defied middle age to stay handsome, vital, irresistible to women. I spent my first paychecks on a new suit and tie, cheaper versions of Warren’s, or what I imagined Warren would wear if the world we knew ended and he no longer had any money.

In that larger-than-life atmosphere of deceit and power plays, Simon knows he’s out of his depth, yet can’t help himself. The author of the book he’s supposed to edit, the beautiful, seductive Anya Partridge, lives in a low-security mental-health facility, which tells him something but not enough. She also seems to wish to do everything except talk about her book.

Consequently, the ground under Simon’s feet constantly shifts, and whenever he tries to find out the truth, his informants talk out of both sides of their mouths. He wants to do the right thing, whatever that is, yet to keep his job, all while trying to look as though he knows what he’s doing. After all, everyone else seems to.

I wish that Simon were less of a nebbish, that brand of ineffectuality that makes you want to shake him. Also, at times, it’s hard to know whether the novel intends parody or realism, particularly concerning his lustful interests, which seem rather easily engaged, even repellent. Warren, however, is all too real and gives me shivers; I used to work for a publisher who shared a few of his character traits and political views. What a horrible time of my life.

Without giving anything away, I can tell you that Prose has re-created an era when the most outlandish theories gained credence, and intelligent, thoughtful people had to wonder who was minding the store, and to what end. I’m sure she intends that as a window on our current mess. Maybe too she’s asking how it is that the Rosenbergs were called traitors and executed, whereas the insurgents who stormed the capital a year ago are somehow judged either garden-variety vandals or heroes exercising their constitutional rights.

The Vixen stretches credibility in a few places but remains a compelling, provocative novel. Take a look.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.