I’ve read the novelist Francine Prose for many years now. Ten years ago, I stumbled across a fawning review of Blue Angel, still my favorite of her novels–though A Changed Man was woefully underrated–and have picked up her novels ever since.
D.G. Myers is equally enthralled, and wrote a sort of love letter in Commentary magazine. Myers praises Prose’s emphasis on narrative over diction, as well as her ardent love of literature:
As a character says in Hunters and Gatherers (1995), literature is her “idea of heaven”—a refuge from the battle of ugly appetites.
All of her characters are well-read, and Prose seems to have a place in her heart for George Eliot and Jane Austen.
A Changed Man may well be my favorite of her novels for the way it places the reader on uncertain ground and rarely allows us secure footing. One of the novel’s characters, a young neo-Nazi, walks into the Manhattan office of a Holocaust survivor. His purpose? To eschew his hateful ways and right his wrongs.
Prose’s skill throughout the novel is making us wonder if this man is truly seeking to redress his past, or simply charming his way into the good graces of the Holocaust survivor and his organization. There’s the plot-driven complications of the neo-Nazi’s former skinheads and the tension of a possible romance with a development officer. The emphasis here is not on lyrical prose, but believable detail and fast-paced scenes. Prose knows her characters, and it shows. In this scene, for example, Vincent, the neo-Nazi, is caught smoking the pot of a teenage friend:
For a while they’re both cracking up. The can’t even look at each other. Then they exchange quick glances, shrug, and start laughing again. Vincent’s laugh is one part surprise, one part relief, one part embarrassment, one part what-the-hell. This could so easily have gone another way.
Just one example of Prose’s intimate understanding of character. She manages to always keep her characters–and readers–off-balance. If you’ve never read the work of Francine Prose, you’re missing out.