Smart, assured fiction from a master storyteller and thoughtful social commentator.

THE VIXEN

A trashy anti-communist novel poses a moral dilemma for a young editor.

On June 19, 1953, narrator Simon Putnam and his parents grimly watch a TV reporter announce that the Rosenbergs have been executed as Soviet spies. With her customary deft hand, Prose sketches the family dynamic as they comment on the coverage: Recent Harvard grad Simon loves his idealistic mother and cynical father but is embarrassed by the immigrant origins they share with the Rosenbergs. His mother grew up with Ethel on the Lower East Side, which is not something Simon wants getting around at Landry, Landry, and Bartlett, the distinguished publishing house where his uncle Madison, a feared literary critic, gets him an entry-level job. Simon hopes to follow Madison’s tracks out of Coney Island, so he’s thrilled when charismatic Warren Landry asks him to edit a manuscript, until he realizes that The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic depicts Ethel Rosenberg as a communist Mata Hari seducing every man in sight and, by the way, as guilty as hell. The firm is in dire financial shape, Warren confides; if Simon can make this mess “less bad” they could have a sorely needed bestseller. Tantalized by the prospect of a promotion, plus the alluring photo of author Anya Partridge, Simon suppresses his qualms and gets to work. Hilarious excerpts from the appalling manuscript provide Prose’s characteristic humor in a story that otherwise has a more serious tone than her norm. Numerous hints are dropped that this project is not what it seems, and readers who know their American cultural history may spot the big reveal well before Simon does, but Prose maintains our interest with a vivid portrait of his internal conflicts: guilt over his participation in “this commodification of Ethel’s tragedy” intensified by guilt over distancing himself from his parents; lust for the intriguingly weird Anya conflicting with a crush on supernice publicity director Elaine Geller. Simon gets a stinging reality check in the novel’s climax, but he also gets a partial revenge and finds his life’s direction in the mildly improbable but touching final developments.

Smart, assured fiction from a master storyteller and thoughtful social commentator.

Pub Date: June 29, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-06-301214-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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