The Vixen: A Novel

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Release Date: 
June 29, 2021
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The Vixen, the irresistible new novel from the protean and prolific Francine Prose, reads like no other Rosenbergs-inspired novel before it, but it unerringly captures the tragicomic absurdity of the cultural compulsion to recast the incongruously ordinary Ethel Rosenberg as some sort of super-spy femme fatale.”

On March 12, 1951, on the sixth day of the trial that would ultimately send Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair for conspiring to share atomic secrets with the Soviet Union, an article in The Minneapolis Star by syndicated columnist Inez Robb asked the question that captivated so many Americans as the trial’s gripping drama unfolded: What secret self lurked behind Ethel’s impassive, unsmiling, inscrutable courtroom demeanor?

Robb also managed to capture the essence of what made Ethel so confounding to anyone with preconceived notions of how master spies looked and dressed and behaved, and so distressing to those who saw enough of themselves or their neighbors in her to wonder if they too might be snatched from their humdrum lives and charged with outrageous crimes, or if the unremarkable Jewish couple next door might be Soviet spies as well.

“There are 50,000 ‘Ethel Rosenbergs’ on the subway any workday morning,” Robb wrote. “This 34-year-old woman sits at the defendants’ table in court wearing the tired uniform of the clerk or stenographer . . . It is difficult to imagine this ordinary-looking woman, slightly dumpy, mixed up in anything as dashing as espionage for she looks about as dashing as bread pudding.”

Mata Hari Ethel Rosenberg was not. However, the American bloodlust for spectacle and Manichean cartoon conflict so all-inclusively and tastelessly lampooned in Robert Coover’s The Public Burning reminds us that the chronic compulsion to sexualize the un-dashing Ethel always hovered near the public’s preoccupation with the case.

As Anne Sebba explains in her well-researched and compelling new biography, Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy, Roy Cohn, Dwight Eisenhower, and other men casting about for some way to typecast Ethel, alighted on the notion that as the older and demonstrably smarter spouse and sibling, Ethel must have simply been controlling the husband, brother, and sister-in-law identified as principals in the spy ring. Anyone who’s seen The Manchurian Candidate can imagine how powerfully the specter of women secretly pulling powerful men’s strings preyed on the Cold War male mind.

The Vixen, the irresistible new novel from the protean and prolific Francine Prose, reads like no other Rosenbergs-inspired novel before it, but unerringly captures the tragicomic absurdity of the cultural compulsion to recast the incongruously ordinary Ethel as some sort of super-spy femme fatale.

The book bears little resemblance to The Public Burning (though it may occasionally allude to it), but it does concern itself, in part, with not one but two imagined Ethels. And though the book does begin with a family in their Brooklyn home watching play-by-play reports on the Rosenbergs’ televised executions crosscut with episodes of I Love Lucy and Ozzie and Harriet—Prose adheres mostly to the few facts of the case she includes as she surrounds them with often-thrilling fiction.

The Vixen is narrated by Simon Putnam, a young Jewish man and recent Harvard graduate living in his parents’ Coney Island apartment and struggling to find his bearings as a low-ranking editorial staffer and cultural fish out of water at a WASPish, high-toned Manhattan publishing house. Simon’s inherited Brahmin surname “Putnam” itself is revealed as a Boston immigration official’s gratuitous anti-Semitic joke.

Simon describes his parents as “Roosevelt Democrats,” tolerant of communists in the abstract but dismissive of Stalinist dupes, and infuriated by McCarthyism. Simon’s ailing mother expresses genuine sympathy for the Rosenberg children, somewhere enduring their parents’ televised execution. She feels a true affinity with Ethel Rosenberg, a classmate at Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side, whose long-ago brief acquaintance she has recently inflated into a considerably closer bond. “History had turned Ethel, in my mother’s eyes, into a beloved friend, almost a family member, the victim of a state-sanctioned public murder,” Simon explains. “Perhaps my mother’s sympathy was unconsciously spiked by our natural human desire for proximity to the famous.”

Ethel’s “dying wish,” as expressed in her last letter to lawyer Emanuel Bloch (read aloud during the broadcast, and later published in The Rosenberg Letters), resonates with Simon’s mother: “You will see to it that our names are kept bright and unsullied by lies.”

Those words begin to haunt Simon shortly thereafter at work, when he receives his first significant assignment: editor of a trashy, bodice-ripping novel worlds apart from Landry, Landry, and Bartlett’s usual highbrow and esoteric literary fare.

The manuscript hits uncomfortably close to home as thinly veiled Rosenberg revisionism: “The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic, Anya Partridge’s debut novel, portrayed the Rosensteins as cold-blooded spies, masterminding a vast conspiracy to destroy the American way of life. Esther Rosenstein was a calculating seductress, an amoral Mata Hari who used her beauty and her irresistible sex appeal to dominate her impotent husband and lure a string of powerful men into putting the free world at risk of nuclear Armageddon.”

Simon quickly realizes that being assigned to edit this “morally indefensible . . . commodification of Ethel’s tragedy,” and the urgency with which the top-secret mission is presented to him—the book’s presumed high sales potential promises to save the publishing house from financial ruin—will compel him to betray Ethel’s memory, and by extension, his own mother.

Simon is also drawn inexorably into the book’s orbit by the “startlingly beautiful” author photo of a woman lounging seductively in a “filmy black slip dress,” which soon places him in a quixotically Nathan Zuckerman-esque dilemma: “Was it ordinary for an editor to be obsessed by his author’s photo? . . . Even then, in that ignorant era when men were no better than Neanderthals, I knew it was wrong for an editor to masturbate over his author’s picture.”

Much unnerving comic drama ensues, from Simon’s appalling encounters with his strident and intimidating boss to a drunken lunch with his monstrous Uncle Maddie, the literary powerbroker who got him the job. Soon Simon enters into a daring and ill-advised affair with his author, the beguiling Anya Partridge, who quickly emerges as the model for her own creation.

Some of the book’s most comic moments arise from the occasional glimpses into the outrageously awful novel in question, and its many inanely salacious lines: “As much as she enjoyed making love, she could never forget that the fate of the American Communist Party depended on her keeping her figure.”

Meanwhile, Simon struggles mightily with how to rewrite the book in a manner that keeps the real Ethel Rosenberg’s legacy “unsullied by lies” while concealing his true intentions, lest he be accused of defending a woman executed as a Soviet spy and thereby placing his own loyalties under suspicion. With a varied cast of characters as sharply and vividly drawn as in all of Prose’s novels, The Vixen makes a convincing case that executive-suite bullies wielded greater power than ever to manipulate subordinates and destroy lives and careers in the McCarthy era.

If The Vixen lacks the transcendent historical resonance and reach of the greatest of all Rosenbergs-inspired novels, E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, it nonetheless constructs a series of plausible, tragicomic Cold War conundrums, as Simon struggles with his limited and none-too-appealing options and his ever-shifting sense of who he can trust.

As a good novel set in motion by bad art, The Vixen bears a passing resemblance to Prose’s previous work, the multithreaded cringe comedy Mister Monkey, although The Vixen is told entirely in one voice. Though historical in nature, this expertly crafted new book never quite matches (or arguably aspires to) the richly textured historical tableau and seamless integration of characters real and imagined of Prose’s masterpiece, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932. Fashioning the most seamless and satisfying historical novel since Ragtime remains a singular achievement few writers are likely to achieve, let alone repeat.