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Baum On Books

Book Review: The Vixen

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Seventy years ago this past spring, husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted for spying for the Soviet Union, largely on testimony against them by Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, who worked at the Atomic Lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

The Rosenbergs maintained their innocence to the day they died, though they were executed at Sing Sing on June 19, 1953. President Eisenhower refused to invoke executive clemency, making it clear that he believed in their guilt, as did many people around the world. But not everyone. To this day, the fast-paced trial and the execution — during peacetime — remain controversial.

New books keep coming out about the Rosenbergs, particularly about 37-year old, matronly-looking Ethel, who allegedly only typed up information. Just this past June two critically acclaimed publications appeared: A biography by British writer biographer Anne Sebba called Ethel Rosenberg: an American Tragedy. The other, 21 days later (and the focus of this review), is a clever, serious, funny, satirical and twist-and-turn novel by award-winning American writer Francine Prose called The Vixen.

There’s something in our own divisive, ideological culture that no doubt prompts revisiting the Rosenbergs and the Red Scare '50s, and Prose found an ingenious way of doing so that explores the ways truth and lies interact, and how sexual desire and a striving for success may conflict with conscience, even blur a sense of one’s authentic self.

Enter likable, inexperienced, but ambitious first-person narrator and recent literature graduate Simon Putnam who comes from a loving middle-class Jewish family in Coney Island. Good looking, with a Mayflower Puritan the last name tagged on his immigrant father by a wag at Ellis Island, Simon is smart enough to have won a scholarship to Harvard, but he’s unable to find a suitable job. To his surprise and delight, his well-known uncle Madison Putnam, a cynical literary intellectual, finds him a junior editorial job at a prestigious literary publishing house, where Simon is put in charge of a slush pile of loser manuscripts.

He reveres the aristocratic CEO Warren Landry, smooth, sophisticated, rich, the consummate WASP. When Landry gives Simon a special, secret project. Simon is flattered, but what a job it is! He must turn a badly written novel about Ethel Rosenberg into a somewhat less badly written novel that will be a pot-boiler success and keep the company financially afloat.

The manuscript is called The Vixen, the Patriot and the Fanatic, and the author is one Anya Partridge, a quirky, beautiful young woman, who lives in a mental facility upstate. Just fix up some of her sentences, the CEO says, but leave the character and concept in place.

Poor Ethel, whom Simon’s mother knew in Brooklyn, and pitied. In Anya’s book, Ethel Rosenberg is Esther Rosenstein, a sexy mantrap who vamps around in a fox stole (vixen, get it?) What will he do? One thing, meet the author of this awful manuscript, whose picture on the book cover has already aroused his passions and try to persuade her to make some changes and protect the Ethel his mother knew.

The plot now takes a surprising and suspenseful turn. Anya seduces Simon on one of the rides they go on in Coney Island, his naive sense of sharing his past with her until she suddenly disappears. It’s no spoiler to say that Simon realizes to his shame that he’s been played. Narrative, he muses, turns on “the shock of finding out, the quickened heartbeat when the truth rips the mask off a lie. Only life is more complicated." Both statements ring true as Francine’s own fiction ironically reveals.