This is one of the most satisfying novels I’ve read in ages. From the beginning, Prose places us firmly in the consciousness of an insecure young Jewish man named Simon who has just graduated from Harvard and who, for mysterious reasons, has been rejected by the only graduate school he applied to. He feels like an utter failure. On the night of the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (an event of worldwide condemnation), he’s living near Coney Island with his parents, watching the proceedings of the execution on television with horror. His mother, who knew Ethel, is especially disturbed.
Simon’s quest for success starts off in a deceptively mundane manner. With the help of a well-connected uncle, Simon lands a job with a prestigious publisher, but his first real assignment—to edit a terribly written novel casting Ethel Rosenberg as a nymphomaniac commie—entails an enormous personal conflict. While the stakes may not seem particularly high at first, as the plot moves forward, it does indeed thicken. Simon desperately wants to succeed in his job, but the juxtaposition of Ethel Rosenberg, a devoted wife and mother, with the overwrought sexuality of her fictional counterpart is more than his conscience can handle. He has no idea that the awful writing and slanderous story are the least of his worries.
The book, which takes place at the height of the Cold War, in the midst of McCarthyism and a general miasma of paranoia, reveals how we lie to each other and to ourselves. The fact that an asylum is one of the settings is no accident. At that point in history, it must have seemed as if the lunatics were in charge—not so different from our own era. Francine Prose is a fabulous writer, and The Vixen is a brilliant literary achievement.