Blue Angel

( 17 )

Overview

It has been years since Swenson, a professor in a New England creative writing program, has published a novel. It's been even longer since any of his students have shown promise. Enter Angela Argo, a pierced, tattooed student with a rare talent for writing. Angela is just the thing Swenson needs. And, better yet, she wants his help. But, as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. . . .

Deliciously risqué, Blue Angel is a withering take on today's academic ...

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Overview

It has been years since Swenson, a professor in a New England creative writing program, has published a novel. It's been even longer since any of his students have shown promise. Enter Angela Argo, a pierced, tattooed student with a rare talent for writing. Angela is just the thing Swenson needs. And, better yet, she wants his help. But, as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. . . .

Deliciously risqué, Blue Angel is a withering take on today's academic mores and a scathing tale that vividly shows what can happen when academic politics collides with political correctness.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
A Review of Blue Angel

Francine Prose's new novel, Blue Angel, is an amiably vicious skewering of the grim reality of teaching undergraduates, circa 1999, and the kind of dangerous place crummy colleges are for anyone who stops to think about anything. Slyly, Prose invites you to believe you already know this story: the "aging professor makes a fool of himself with a brilliant young female student and is ruined while she goes on to triumph" story, a familiarity which the title underscores (referring, as it does, to the von Sternberg movie, which has such a plot). However, Prose infuses the book with the kind of intelligence that makes readers of her incendiary Harper's essays mutter, "I wish I'd said that" over and over. The book makes all kinds of salient, of-the-moment points about publishing (the way a writer is never more sexy and worthy of a bigger advance than when she's never published a book) and gender (women rule academia now, and everyone pretends they don't, which makes them rule it more) and anything else Prose's gaze touches.

Mark Winegardner

Mark Winegardner is a professor in the creative writing program at Florida State University and the author of four books, including the novel The Veracruz Blues.

Entertainment Weekly
A literary arsonist with blistering wit, sends up both smug academics and politically correct undergrads in the satrical bonfire Blue Angel.
Vanity Fair
Her trenchant satire of sexual harassment gives political correctness a much deserved poke in the eye.
USA Today
Screamingly funny.
Us Weekly
A mesmerizing and hilarious tour de force.
Mademoiselle
Prose is a pro, and this funny yet devastating novel will rock literary and academic worlds alike.
Entertainment Weekly
Francine Prose, a literary arsonist with blistering wit, sends up both smug academics and politically correct undergrads in the satrical bonfire Blue Angel.
Vanity Fair
Her trenchant satire of sexual harassment gives political correctness a much deserved poke in the eye.
USA Today
Screamingly funny.
Us Weekly
A mesmerizing and hilarious tour de force.
Richard Price
A darkly funny look at the paranoid star-chamber world of sexual correctness.
Lingua Franca
Deirdre Donahue
Francine Prose takes cruel and accurate aim at the current climate on campus in her new novel Blue Angel It is both funny and really sad.
USA Today
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Trust the iconoclastic Prose to turn conventional received wisdom on such subjects as predatory professors, innocent female students and the necessity for a degree of political correctness on campus on their silly heads. In this astutely observed, often laugh-aloud funny and sometimes touching academic comedy, she proves more skeptic than cynic, with an affection for her central character that is surprisingly warm. He is Ted Swenson, a happily married and reasonably content novelist who teaches creative writing at a much less than Ivy League college in darkest Vermont. Stuck on his own latest book, he is nevertheless charmed and intrigued by the writing skills of the unlikely, ungainly and punky Angela Argo. (Prose takes the considerable risk of offering chunks of Angela's work, and the reader can see in it what poor Ted does.) Out of the best intentions--and an only half-acknowledged but not compelling concupiscent itch--he encourages the girl, who is soon hanging on his every word of praise and hinting that if only Ted's editor could see her work... One moment of lustful madness that is not even consummated (a broken tooth intervenes), a disinclination of Ted's editor to see Angela's novel-in-progress and Ted's goose is cooked. Suddenly, every tiny hint of lechery or unfairness toward his students, an outburst at an unbearable dinner party, a kindly gesture are all evidence against him, dragged out in a climactic academic hearing that is at once farcical and horribly realistic. A slightly indeterminate ending--for where does poor Ted, sans wife and job, go from here?--is the only minor blemish on a peerlessly accomplished performance, at once tinglingly contemporary and timelessly funny. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Prose's latest novel charts the downward spiral of a creative writing professor caught up in a sexual harrassment scandal. The years ago, Ted Swanson wrote a major novel about growing up with a crazy father who later killed himself. Now Swanson's blocked on a new novel with a contrived plot and hasn't written anything in years. An autobiographical writer in the throes of a mid-life crisis, he feels he's suffocating in his comfortable, boring job at a small New England college, stuck with a predictable wife, a sullen daughter, and a life that offers him nothing to write about. So he becomes entranced by his most talented student, Angela, a girl with numerous facial piercings who can spin a page-burning novel out of her imagination. Soon, Angela's story of a young girl who becomes involved with a teacher seems to be coming true. Is Swenson lured by her to be coming true. Is Swenson lured to her writing talent, or is Angela entrapping him to conduct research? Prose interestingly juxtaposes questions of life and art with issues of complicity and harrassment. Like the professor's debasement in the Marlene Dietrich film of the same name, Swenson's impending entanglement is compelling and fascinating to behold. Recommended for all fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/99.]-Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisburg, VA
School Library Journal
YA-Professor and novelist Ted Swenson's life is just about perfect. The publication of a well-received novel years earlier earned him a light teaching load at his small college, and if his fiction-writing students show little talent, that means there's plenty he can teach them. His troublesome daughter has left for college, and he and his wife are enjoying their cozy country home, where Swenson occasionally-very occasionally-works on his long-overdue second book. Enter Angela Argo, a quiet young woman with orange-and-green hair, multiple facial piercings, a dog collar, and more talent than he's ever seen in a student. Swenson's feeling generous-he'll take some time from his unbusy life and give her a little extra attention. The fact that the subject of her novel is a student with a crush on her teacher makes him a little nervous, but it's not like he's going to have an affair with her. He wouldn't do anything that stupid and besides, he loves his wife-. Prose's tightly written satire of college life and its new code of morality will have sophisticated teens laughing out loud. They might also do some serious thinking about love and sex, and about the many ways people can fall prey to one another. Note: the cover photo of a girl's exposed buttocks can be more problematic than the book itself.-Jan Tarasovic, West Springfield High School, Fairfax County, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Sage
There is a way of getting inside your characters that renders them intimately known and comprehensively exposed -- at once privileged and gutted -- and Francine Prose is very good at it...Once you start reading it, you'll be hooked.
The New York Times Book Review
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
What makes Prose's story particularly gripping and outrageous is how much you care for Swenson...
The New York Times
Jones
This is a blisteringly funny yet compassionate novel about making bad decisions. As for the author, she never makes a false move.
Newsweek
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060882037
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/28/2006
  • Series: P.S. Series
  • Pages: 344
  • Sales rank: 321,712
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author

Francine Prose

Francine Prose is the critically acclaimed author of nineteen novels, including the National Book Award Finalist Blue Angel and My New American Life. She has written three other novels for young adults: After, winner of the California Young Reader Medal, an IRA/CBC Young Adults' Choice, and a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age; Bullyville, a PW Best Book and Book Sense Children's Pick; and her most recent, Touch. She is also the author of two picture books, Leopold, the Liar of Leipzig and Rhino, Rhino, Sweet Potato. The recipient of numerous grants and honors, including a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, Francine Prose was Director's Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She lives in New York City.

Biography

When it comes to an author as eclectic as Francine Prose, it's difficult to find the unifying thread in her work. But, if one were to examine her entire oeuvre—from novels and short stories to essays and criticism—a love of reading would seem to be the animating force. That may not seem extraordinary, especially for a writer, but Prose is uncommonly passionate about the link between reading and writing. "I've always read," she confessed in a 1998 interview with Atlantic Unbound. "I started when I was four years old and just didn't stop…The only reason I wanted to be a writer was because I was such an avid reader." (In 2006, she produced an entire book on the subject—a nuts-and-bolts primer entitled Reading Like a Writer, in which she uses excerpts from classic and contemporary literature to illustrate her personal notions of literary excellence.)

If Prose is specific about the kind of writing she, herself, likes to read, she's equally voluble about what puts her off. She is particularly vexed by "obvious, tired clichés; lazy, ungrammatical writing; implausible plot turns." Unsurprisingly, all of these are notably absent in her own work. Even when she explores tried-and-true literary conventions—such as the illicit romantic relationship at the heart of her best known novel, Blue Angel—she livens them with wit and irony. She even borrowed her title from the famous Josef von Sternberg film dealing with a similar subject.

As biting and clever as she is, Prose cringes whenever her work is referred to as satire. She explained to Barnes & Noble.com, "Satirical to me means one-dimensional characters…whereas, I think of myself as a novelist who happens to be funny—who's writing characters that are as rounded and artfully developed as the writers of tragic novels."

Prose's assessment of her own work is pretty accurate. Although her subject matter is often ripe for satire (religious fanaticism in Household Saints, tabloid journalism in Bigfoot Dreams, upper-class pretensions in Primitive People), etc.), she takes care to invest her characters with humanity and approaches them with respect. "I really do love my characters," she says, "but I feel that I want to take a very hard look at them. I don't find them guilty of anything I'm not guilty of myself."

Best known for her fiction, Prose has also written literary criticism for The New York Times, art criticism for The Wall Street Journal, and children's books based on Jewish folklore, all of it infused with her alchemic blend of humor, insight,and intelligence.

Good To Know

Prose rarely wastes an idea. In Blue Angel, the novel that the character Angela is writing is actually a discarded novel that Prose started before stopping because, in her own words, "it seemed so juvenile to me."

While she once had no problem slamming a book in one of her literary critiques, these days Prose has resolved to only review books that she actually likes. The ones that don't adhere to her high standards are simply returned to the senders.

Prose's novel Household Saints was adapted into an excellent film starring Tracey Ullman, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Lili Taylor in 1993.

Another novel, The Glorious Ones, was adapted into a musical.

In 2002, Prose published The Lives of the Muses, an intriguing hybrid of biography, philosophy, and gender studies that examines nine women who inspired famous artists and thinkers—from John Lennon's wife Yoko Ono to Alice Liddell, the child who enchanted Lewis Carroll.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 1, 1947
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Radcliffe College, 1968

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Swenson waits for his students to complete their private rituals, adjusting zippers and caps, arranging the pens and notebooks so painstakingly chosen to express their tender young selves, the fidgety ballets that signal their weekly submission and reaffirm the social compact to be stuck in this room for an hour without real food or TV. He glances around the seminar table, counts nine; good, everyone's here, then riffles through the manuscript they're scheduled to discuss, pauses, and says, "Is it my imagination, or have we been seeing an awful lot of stories about humans having sex with animals?"

The students stare at him, appalled. He can't believe he said that. His pathetic stab at humor sounded precisely like what it was: a question he'd dreamed up and rehearsed as he walked across North Quad, past the gothic graystone cloisters, the Founders Chapel, the lovely two-hundred-year-old maples just starting to drop the orange leaves that lie so thickly on the cover of the Euston College viewbook. He'd hardly noticed his surroundings, so blindly focused was he on the imminent challenge of leading a class discussion of a student story in which a teenager, drunk and frustrated after a bad date with his girlfriend, rapes an uncooked chicken by the light of the family fridge.

How is Swenson supposed to begin? What he really wants to ask is: Was this story written expressly to torment me? What little sadist thought it would be fun to watch me tackle the technical flaws of a story that spends two pages describing how the boy cracks the chicken's rib cage to better fit the slippery visceral cavity around his throbbing hard-on? But Danny Liebman,whose story it is, isn't out to torture Swenson. He'd just wanted something interesting for his hero to do.

Slouched over, or sliding under, the seminar table, the students gaze at Swenson, their eyes as opaque and lidded as the eyes of the chicken whose plucked head the hero turns to face him during their late-night kitchen romance. But chickens in suburban refrigerators are generally headless. Swenson makes a mental note to mention this detail later.

"I don't get it," says Carlos Ostapcek. "What other stories about animals?" Carlos always starts off. Ex-navy, ex-reform school, he's the alpha male, the only student who's ever been anywhere except inside a classroom. As it happens, he's the only male student, not counting Danny.

What stories is Swenson talking about? He suddenly can't recall. Maybe it was some other year, another class completely. He's been having too many moments like this: a door slams shut behind him and his mind disappears. is this early Alzheimer's? He's only fortyseven. Only forty-seven? What happened in the heartbeat since he was his students' age?

Maybe his problem's the muggy heat, bizarre for late September, El Niño dumping a freak monsoon all over northern Vermont. His classroom-high in the college bell tower-is the hottest spot on campus. And this past summer, workmen painted the windows shut. Swenson has complained to Buildings and Grounds, but they're too busy fixing sidewalk holes that could result in lawsuits.

"Is something wrong, Professor Swenson?" Claris Williams inclines her handsome head, done this week in bright rows of coiled dyed-orange snails. Everyone, including Swenson, is a little in love with, and scared of, Claris, possibly because she combines such intelligent sweetness with the glacial beauty of an African princess turned supermodel.

"Why do you ask?" says Swenson.

"You groaned," Claris says. "Twice."

"Nothing's wrong." Swenson's groaning in front of his class. Doesn't that prove nothing's wrong? "And if you call me Professor again, I'll fail you for the semester."

Claris stiffens. Relax! It's only a joke! Euston students call teachers by their first names, that's what Euston parents pay twenty-eight thousand a year for. But some kids can't make themselves say Ted, the scholarship students like Carlos (who does an end run around it by calling him Coach), the Vermont farm kids like Jonelle, the black students like Claris and Makeesha, the ones least likely to be charmed by his jokey threats. Euston hardly has any students like that, but this fan, for some reason, they're all in Swenson's class.

Last week they discussed Claris's story about a girl who accompanies her mother on a job cleaning a rich woman's house, an eerily convincing piece that moved from hilarity to horror as it chronicled the havoc wreaked by the maid stumbling through the rooms, chugging Thunderbird wine, until the horrified child watches her tumble downstairs.

The students were speechless with embarrassment. They all assumed, as did Swenson, that Claris's story was maybe not literal truth, but painfully close to the facts. At last, Makeesha Davis, the only other black student, said she was sick of stories in which sisters were always messed up on dope or drunk or selling their booty or dead.

Swenson argued for Claris. He'd dragged in Chekhov to tell the class that the writer need not paint a picture of an ideal world, but only describe the actual world, without sermons, without judgment. As if his students give a shit about some dead Russian that Swenson ritually exhumes to support his loser opinions. And yet just mentioning Chekhov made Swenson feel less alone, as if he were being watched over by a saint who wouldn't judge him for the criminal fraud of pretending that these kids could be taught what Swenson's pretending to teach them. Chekhov would see into his heart and know that he sincerely wished he could give his students what they want: talent, fame, money, a job.

After the workshop on her story, Claris stayed to talk. Swenson had groped for some tactful way to tell her that he knew what it...

Blue Angel. Copyright © by Francine Prose. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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First Chapter

Blue Angel
A Novel

Chapter One

Swenson waits for his students to complete their private rituals, adjusting zippers and caps, arranging the pens and notebooks so painstakingly chosen to express their tender young selves, the fidgety ballets that signal their weekly submission and reaffirm the social compact to be stuck in this room for an hour without real food or TV. He glances around the seminar table, counts nine; good, everyone's here, then riffles through the manuscript they're scheduled to discuss, pauses, and says, "Is it my imagination, or have we been seeing an awful lot of stories about humans having sex with animals?"

The students stare at him, appalled. He can't believe he said that. His pathetic stab at humor sounded precisely like what it was: a question he'd dreamed up and rehearsed as he walked across North Quad, past the gothic graystone cloisters, the Founders Chapel, the lovely two-hundred-year-old maples just starting to drop the orange leaves that lie so thickly on the cover of the Euston College viewbook. He'd hardly noticed his surroundings, so blindly focused was he on the imminent challenge of leading a class discussion of a student story in which a teenager, drunk and frustrated after a bad date with his girlfriend, rapes an uncooked chicken by the light of the family fridge.

How is Swenson supposed to begin? What he really wants to ask is: Was this story written expressly to torment me? What little sadist thought it would be fun to watch me tackle the technical flaws of a story that spends two pages describing how the boy cracks the chicken's rib cage to better fit the slippery visceral cavity around his throbbing hard-on? But Danny Liebman, whose story it is, isn't out to torture Swenson. He'd just wanted something interesting for his hero to do.

Slouched over, or sliding under, the seminar table, the students gaze at Swenson, their eyes as opaque and lidded as the eyes of the chicken whose plucked head the hero turns to face him during their late-night kitchen romance. But chickens in suburban refrigerators are generally headless. Swenson makes a mental note to mention this detail later.

"I don't get it," says Carlos Ostapcek. "What other stories about animals?" Carlos always starts off. Ex-navy, ex-reform school, he's the alpha male, the only student who's ever been anywhere except inside a classroom. As it happens, he's the only male student, not counting Danny.

What stories is Swenson talking about? He suddenly can't recall. Maybe it was some other year, another class completely. He's been having too many moments like this: a door slams shut behind him and his mind disappears. is this early Alzheimer's? He's only fortyseven. Only forty-seven? What happened in the heartbeat since he was his students' age?

Maybe his problem's the muggy heat, bizarre for late September, El Niño dumping a freak monsoon all over northern Vermont. His classroom-high in the college bell tower-is the hottest spot on campus. And this past summer, workmen painted the windows shut. Swenson has complained to Buildings and Grounds, but they're too busy fixing sidewalk holes that could result in lawsuits.

"Is something wrong, Professor Swenson?" Claris Williams inclines her handsome head, done this week in bright rows of coiled dyed-orange snails. Everyone, including Swenson, is a little in love with, and scared of, Claris, possibly because she combines such intelligent sweetness with the glacial beauty of an African princess turned supermodel.

"Why do you ask?" says Swenson.

"You groaned," Claris says. "Twice."

"Nothing's wrong." Swenson's groaning in front of his class. Doesn't that prove nothing's wrong? "And if you call me Professor again, I'll fail you for the semester."

Claris stiffens. Relax! It's only a joke! Euston students call teachers by their first names, that's what Euston parents pay twenty-eight thousand a year for. But some kids can't make themselves say Ted, the scholarship students like Carlos (who does an end run around it by calling him Coach), the Vermont farm kids like Jonelle, the black students like Claris and Makeesha, the ones least likely to be charmed by his jokey threats. Euston hardly has any students like that, but this fan, for some reason, they're all in Swenson's class.

Last week they discussed Claris's story about a girl who accompanies her mother on a job cleaning a rich woman's house, an eerily convincing piece that moved from hilarity to horror as it chronicled the havoc wreaked by the maid stumbling through the rooms, chugging Thunderbird wine, until the horrified child watches her tumble downstairs.

The students were speechless with embarrassment. They all assumed, as did Swenson, that Claris's story was maybe not literal truth, but painfully close to the facts. At last, Makeesha Davis, the only other black student, said she was sick of stories in which sisters were always messed up on dope or drunk or selling their booty or dead.

Swenson argued for Claris. He'd dragged in Chekhov to tell the class that the writer need not paint a picture of an ideal world, but only describe the actual world, without sermons, without judgment. As if his students give a shit about some dead Russian that Swenson ritually exhumes to support his loser opinions. And yet just mentioning Chekhov made Swenson feel less alone, as if he were being watched over by a saint who wouldn't judge him for the criminal fraud of pretending that these kids could be taught what Swenson's pretending to teach them. Chekhov would see into his heart and know that he sincerely wished he could give his students what they want: talent, fame, money, a job.

After the workshop on her story, Claris stayed to talk. Swenson had groped for some tactful way to tell her that he knew what it...

Blue Angel
A Novel
. Copyright © by Francine Prose. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Read More Show Less

Interviews & Essays


Stating the Obvious: An Interview with Francine Prose

Sometimes you just know someone is going to be fabulous.

The first hint that I would be as enchanted with author Francine Prose as I was with her new novel, Blue Angel, came when I called her to set up our interview. While trying to choose a meeting place where our conversation wouldn't be overwhelmed by clattering background noise, Prose offered without hesitation, "We can do it at my place." And then there was her place. Upon entering the home of Francine Prose, you are immediately aware that it is the abode of artists. Glorious paintings are perfectly arranged on the living room and—not to sound too new-agey here—the energy of the apartment is palpable. I didn't know at the time that her husband is a painter, but I probably should have guessed. (Anyone who reads Blue Angel would be safe in assuming that he is not a university administrator.)

In her new novel, Blue Angel, prose gleefully satirizes the current state of academic political correctness with provocative insight and impressive humor. Chock-full of hilarious, indelible scenes of academic life, Blue Angel chronicles the professional and personal undoing of a middle-aged creative writing professor, Ted Swenson, at the hands of a talented and seductive student.

I asked her why she chose to write about the politics of academic life—in particular, the vexing modern phenomenon of political correctness.

"Well, I teach, so I'm often in the middle of that. Fortunately, creative writing departments usually don't have that much to do with academic departments. But I know it's there. It filters back through my students. My students go to these terrible literature classes, and they come up with these nutty ideas about what you're allowed to do and what you're not allowed to do in writing. It's heartbreaking."

For example?

"They think, 'Oh, I can't really write a female character who's not incredibly self-activated and independent and together because I will be contributing to the oppression of women.' Well, no. You're actually just writing a character."

These days, Prose teaches at the New School, an experience she describes as "a dream." The New York City-based college is a far cry from the fictional setting of Blue Angel, a small, remote liberal arts school called Euston College. "Schools like Euston terrify me," she says. "With one moment of inattention, you lose your job."

Fear of losing one's job surfaces early in Blue Angel, when Ted Swenson, a creative writing teacher and novelist struggling to follow up his earlier success, is summoned to a mandatory meeting in which Euston College's policy on sexual harassment is being reviewed for the entire faculty and staff. As Swenson settles into his auditorium seat, he can't help but wonder if the increasingly bizarre sexual content of his students' writing could actually jeopardize his job. His feelings of concern, bordering on paranoia, are ones with which many professors can empathize. Prose explains that classroom sensitivity is so heightened that even she finds herself acting on the side of caution.

"If I go into a class to teach a story like Beckett's 'First Love,' I'll [tell the class] that there's some dicey sexual material, and if anyone feels threatened by that, just don't show up for class that day. Why should I have to do this? It's a masterpiece of literature."

After reading Blue Angel, it's hard to imagine that anyone who likes to say what she truly thinks could ever be successful within the politics of academia.

"I don't have a real teaching job, and it's not accidental," Prose tells me happily. "After this book comes out, it might be impossible. On the other hand, I do have friends who teach who are just like me, and they've survived. They've managed. So I think, like with everything else, you just have to be careful what you say."

When a writing teacher isn't dodging the bullets of political correctness, there's always the issue of whether or not creative writing can actually be taught. Prose explains, "You can certainly teach people to edit their own work. You can teach people to pay attention to language. But you can't teach talent. Who knows what that is? The irony is that the really gifted ones don't need you at all and probably shouldn't be there."

Prose's first book, Judah The Pious, was published in 1973. She wrote the majority of the novel during a year spent living in India, after having left what she regards as a disastrous turn in a Harvard graduate program. Now, some 11 books later, Prose feels she has finally reached a new level of control over her craft.

"I don't think people make steady progress," she explains. "For example, I think my third and my fourth books were really worse than my first and second books. Now I feel like I'm actually learning to do some things that I wish I'd known 11 books ago! I have a much clearer sense of how to construct a plotline. You just get it little by little. And you learn how to do certain technical things. You learn what you can do without—that you don't have to over-explain, that you can trust the reader."

And the reader can certainly trust Francine Prose. She is clearly in control of Ted Swenson—every nuance of his thoughts and actions hits the right note. When I comment on her pitch-perfect portrayal of her hapless professor, she almost makes it sound easy: "He was so much fun! Also, I have to say that writing from the male point of view really helped. It was so liberating. I felt I had a certain distance from it and I could just go nuts and let him go nuts."

As Swenson gradually unravels, his wife, Sherri, can only collect her dignity and move out of the way. Like many marriages, the Swenson's survived years of ups and downs only to come unglued over a single, avoidable, and pathetic mistake. I asked Prose if most marriages are inherently doomed, subject to the frailties of men and women.

"I hope not! I'd like mine to last. Swenson is a guy who's looking to take a big fall; he just doesn't know it. And as far as Angela goes—Swenson's love and nemesis—anybody who teaches would know that a student like that is big trouble. And the fact that Swenson is drawn to her—it's a kind of death wish. So I don't think it's about the impossibility of marriage, I think it's about this guy who gets to a certain point and just wants to pull the plug on his whole life and finds this particular way of doing it."

Swenson begins to realize what he's doing, what role he has cast himself in his own life, as he watches the 1930s Marlene Dietrich film The Blue Angel.

"The strangest thing about writing this novel is that I was having lunch with my previous editor, and they asked what my next project was going to be. I had no idea but I said, 'I'm going to write this novel based on "The Blue Angel," set in a creative writing classroom.' It was like an out-of-body experience. I had seen the movie 15 years before. Then I watched it about ten times during the course of writing. I don't know, I think I'm always writing about obsession in a certain sense, and it's a movie about obsession. And I'd been thinking about academia, and the main character is a professor, so, how perfect."

So is sexual attraction between teachers and students merely the stuff of novels and films, or is this dynamic prevalent in real academic life? Prose says that sexual attraction between teachers and students is not only common, it's a good thing.

"I don't think that means you sleep with your students—I think that's terrible. But I think, Who were the teachers you learned from in school? The ones you had big crushes on. Why do you want to please teachers? Is it simply because you love the subject so much? Sometimes, but not always."

If the sexual obsession depicted in Blue Angel were to make its way onto the big screen, Prose knows who would be her leading man and his Lolita: "Nick Nolte, definitely to play Swenson, and Angelina Jolie [for Angela]."

The role Prose finds herself playing these days can best be described as spokesperson for the obvious. Her recent article in The New York Times Magazine, "A Wasteland of One's Own," in which she criticized the poor quality of web sites, television, and movies geared for women, was met with a flood of responses. Women indicated that her article echoed the dissatisfaction they, too, felt with the products of mass media, a frustration that had yet to be formed as a public sentiment. Recalling the responses she read, Prose says, "I was really very moved by most of them. The Times did an online forum about it, and they got dozens of responses and sent some letters to me, and I did a couple of call-in talk shows. There were all these women saying, 'I never liked this stuff!'"

How does she decide what to write about? "In general, I like pieces that make me think about things that I wouldn't ordinarily have thought about. I liked the New York Times assignment because I don't think I would have gone on to ivillage.com or oxygen.com without someone saying, 'Go look and see.' That whole world of marketing to women...I certainly wouldn't have gone to see [the movie] 'Hanging Up' if they hadn't sent me!"

But stating the so-called obvious is not always easy. There are plenty of people who don't want to hear it. Fortunately for us, Prose is not easily deterred. "I joke about stating the obvious—and while it's always seemed like a handicap to have a compulsion to say the thing that everyone knows and no one will say, I've finally found a way to make it work."

Jamie Brenner

Jamie Brenner is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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Reading Group Guide

National Book Award Finalist

An Introduction
Meet Ted Swenson (the narrator calls him only Swenson), a middle-aged, less than prolific novelist cum creative writing teacher on staff at Euston, a mediocre private college nestled deep in the "moose-ridden" wilderness of rural Vermont. There, he has carved out a semi-satisfying life with his wife Sherrie, the campus nurse with whom he fell in love years earlier in a New York City emergency room. Their marriage is a happy one. The sight of Sherrie in her blue jeans, black t-shirt, and lab coat still awakens Swenson's desire, and together they enjoy the simple pleasures of domesticity: comfortable sex, Sherrie's lovingly prepared dinners, fine wine and the view of her vegetable garden from the kitchen window.

Upon closer observation, Ted and Sherrie's familial tranquility is precarious. Ruby, their melancholy daughter, fled to a state school after a fall-out with her father over a teenage romance with a campus bad-boy. The specter of a failed writing career torments Swenson, as do his under-read, culturally stagnate students. Add to the mix a volatile politically correct campus climate -- what was once provocative intellectual and emotional inquiry is now sexual harassment to litigious students and parents. Indeed, life is closing in on Swenson, and his resentment is palpable. Into this pressure-cooker walks Angela Argo, a "skinny, pale redhead with neon-orange and lime-green streaks in her hair and a delicate, sharp-featured face pierced in a half-dozen places." When she enters -- or, rather, storms -- into Swenson's life of repressed longings, all hell breaks loose. And who better to skewer the resulting circusand its performers than Francine Prose?

While Blue Angel is an irreverent, smart, and deliciously funny satire of political correctness and the ivory tower, it is also searing and uncompromising in its exploration of Swenson's spiral into a mid-life crisis. Francine Prose detonates some well-rooted cultural beliefs surrounding both of these topics. For instance, Angela, a barely legal student, literally preys upon the unsuspecting Swenson. Readers may squirm uncomfortably while contemplating the notion that the sexy middle-aged male teacher is the victim, and the female student the aggressor.

Flawed as Swenson may be, he's a complex character, and he makes us think. We cringe at each wrong turn he makes, as he fumbles around wounding those who love him. Yet, we empathize with Ted Swenson. He's so . . . human. And that seems to be the point. Human behavior is not black and white, and cannot be stifled by the tenets of puritanical political correctness. Moral people sometimes do immoral things, and they learn important lessons from their foibles. Life is complicated, unpredictable, and often uncomfortable. There's just no controlling it. One can only hold on to a sense of humor and, hopefully, emerge relatively unscathed and, perhaps, enriched.

Discussion Questions
  • ". . . the writer need not paint a picture of an ideal world, but only describe the actual world, without sermons, without judgement" (pg. 3). How does this quote from the first chapter resonate throughout the novel? Do you think it reflects what Francine Prose is aiming to accomplish in Blue Angel? Is she successful? Why or why not?

  • Angela's favorite novel is Jane Eyre, which is about a governess who falls in love with the scarred, angry father of her charge. One of Swenson's favorite novels is The Red and Black, which is about a young man who also happens to be social climber. How is this ironic?

  • Much is made of the fact that Angela is a compulsive liar. That said, what do we really know about Angela? Working backwards from the end of the novel, reconstruct her history. Who is her father? Was she molested?

  • "What if someone rose to say what so many of them are thinking, that there's something erotic about the act of teaching, all that information streaming back and forth like some . . . bodily fluid" (pg. 22). Discuss this quote from Chapter 2. Is it true?

  • One theme central to the novel is that of truth, which is crystallized during the dinner party given by Dean Francis Bentham. Swenson witnesses Magda commit what he calls professional suicide by elaborating on an attempt to teach her students a Philip Larkin poem in which the word "fuck" is used. Was Swenson projecting his own fear of the truth, or did you get the sense that Magda was walking a fine line? In a situation such as that, is there such a thing as too much truth?

  • How would you characterize Swenson's relationships with the women in Blue Angel: Sherrie, Magda, Ruby and Angela. Is there something that he wants from them that they can't give him? If so, what is it and does it affect Swenson's final fall from grace?

  • How do you feel about Swenson? Did you empathize with him? Were you angry with him? Regardless of Angela's predatory nature, did you hold him more responsible for the eventual outcome of the situation than she? Why or why not?

  • Discuss the current climate of political correctness. What are pros and cons of political correctness? Is too much political correctness better than no political correctness?

    About the Author: Francine Prose is the author of ten highly acclaimed works of fiction, including Bigfoot Dreams, Household Saints, Hunters and Gatherers, Primitive People, and Guided Tours of Hell. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, GQ, and The Paris Review; she is a contributing editor at Harper's, and she writes regularly on art for the Wall Street Journal. The recipient of numerous grants and awards, including a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, Francine Prose is a Director's Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She has taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and Johns Hopkins University. She lives in New York City.

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    Customer Reviews

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    Sort by: Showing all of 17 Customer Reviews
    • Anonymous

      Posted April 22, 2002

      Funny, intelligent, worth a go

      Francine Prose knows how to write a male voice convincingly. I enjoyed the somewhat self-deprecating tone of the novel. While I believe the end was disappointing and way too obvious -- especially from a woman who has been irritatingly vocal about her distaste for commercial women's fiction -- it is still worth the read. Getting to the surprisingly mediocre end is worth the trip.

      1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted January 1, 2002

      A Miss

      The protagonist of Francine Prose's novel, Blue Angel, Ted Swenson, is a happily-married, tenured fiction-writing professor at small, exclusive Euston College in rural Vermont. Swenson, however, has reached a critical point in his life. Suffering from an extreme case of writer's block, he feels the novels that made him famous are now behind him as he suffers through writing workshops such as the one that open this novel. Of course, Swenson's students can't write. Except for one, the tattooed, multiple-pierced, bad girl, Angela Argo. Angela, who has a novel-in-progress, is definitely trouble and Swenson knows it. Yet, predictably, he cannot help himself. Although Blue Angel is satire, it is satire that misses the mark. Prose seems to have the hard-heartedness necessary to bring her characters to a fitting end, unlike Jane Smiley in Moo, but rather than concentrate on her story, Prose seems far too intent on sending us a feminist message about the perils of student-teacher relationships. This book really seems reminiscent of the early nineties when a new crop of pro-pleasure feminists, such as Katie Roiphe, decried the moralizing forces at work on the college campuses of the United States. Another problem with Blue Angel is that one can spot the ending from the very first page. To Prose's credit the specifics come as something of a surprise, but the characters, although funny and memorable, act in ways that are certainly not credible. From the humorless women's studies professor, Lauren, to the Dimmsdale-like college dean, Bentham, to Swenson's antagonist, herself, Angela, most of the characters seem to be representative rather than realistic. Although Prose is not at her best when attempting to twist and turn the plot, she does excel at portraying the poetry inherent in everyday existence. Some of this novel's best, and most wonderfully-written scenes, revolve around Swenson and his faithful wife, Sherrie. The fact that many things in Blue Angel tend to elude all logical explanation doesn't detract at all from the book's positives. After all, doesn't real life, more than anything else, elude any attempt to explain it away with logic? The writing in Blue Angel is good. In fact, it would have been excellent had this book been anything else but what it is meant to be. I, myself, just didn't find it biting and caustic enough to be good satire. Blue Angel is a good book and it is highly entertaining. But if it's campus satire you're looking for, I would definitely recommend Philip Roth's wonderful The Human Stain instead. That is satire of the highest order. As for Prose, she is a very good writer, but I would choose one of her other books rather than Blue Angel. It is definitely not her best.

      1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Posted February 20, 2012

      more from this reviewer

      Disappointing

      BLUE ANGEL
      Francine Prose

      Literary fiction; National Book Award finalist. Despite raves from some critics, BLUE ANGEL, a satire on academic political correctness, writers, and wanna-be writers/students in an English Department at a second-rate New England college, left me with no interest in reading more from this author. The plot revolves around married middle-aged Ted Swenson, who many years earlier published a critically successful novel but has had writer’s block for months. Angela, pierced and tattooed, is one of his creative writing students who, to his surprise, does have real writing talent. She pursues Ted relentlessly and he becomes infatuated with her, ultimately leading to a sexual harassment charge. Especially unsatisfying was the ending, which was anticlimactic and flat.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted June 11, 2010

      Good story, but disappointing finish

      I truly enjoyed this novel and read through it quickly, but agreed with an earlier reveiwer's comments that the finish was disappointing. It was, to me, as if the story was left unfinished. I would like to have learned who this Angela Argo person really is, then realized that was exactly what our main character, Swenson would have liked to know. However, like any long trip to a final destination, it was the ride along the way that was most memorable. I particularly enjoyed the way the author capably interjected Swenson's constantly changing and conflicting thoughts and feelings into every comment made and every look he received--how, his not thinking of Angela for a period of time convinced him he was not obsessed with her after all, then how he becomes obsessed all over again. The constant nuances and self doubts seemed very true to life. I'll be looking for more from this author.

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    • Posted October 15, 2009

      OMG

      This book is not what you think it is...even to the last page.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted October 24, 2000

      Same ol', same ol'.

      This novel, which hooked me in its first half with a wry sense of humor, unfortunately loses satirical focus in its second. There is significant irony that the same faults the main character points out in his students' work (e.g. an easily deciphered political agenda, predictability, unbelievable characters with incredible motivation) are prevalent in Prose's novel. Also, Prose's many allusions to the works of Bronte, Dostoevsky and Nabokov serve to remind the reader exactly how derivative Blue Angel is, rather than providing any real contrasts. Though at times amusing, the final chapters are tedious and provide no new insight. Part Oleanna, part Lolita, and ultimately annoying.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted August 11, 2000

      Great Book / Rare Find

      Blue Angel is my first Francine Prose novel, but not my last. Highly recommended.

      0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted July 18, 2000

      A great satire!

      A smart written satire that makes a serious indictment against hypocrisy. I found this book to be very unique and a true pleasure to read.

      0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted June 23, 2000

      Witty sarcastic view of sexual harassment.

      A painfully realistic depiction of modern day college students and college politics, presented with biting sarcasm on every page. You won't want to have anything to do with colleges after reading this. Francine Prose is quite an author, in her witty sarcastic style, good background research, realism, and the fact she doesn't take sides. True to life, everybody in the book is fickle and despicable when put under pressure, and the only person who seems to have any morals is the hapless professor who would ordinarily be considered society's stereotypical sex criminal. The age of the temptress is not specified, but given that it's a college and she's described as a minor, it's probably 17. My main complaints about the book are that the author's references to bestiality to grab the reader's attention are a bit contrived, and every incident seems to be negative, which means there were no high points to cherish anywhere. P.S.: If you want an uncensored version of the cover photo, it's in '1000 Nudes,' available at Barnes & Noble.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted June 13, 2000

      Correctness, choice, character

      In an era of correctness, vividly developed characters make choices. Spider traps fly. Timeless story in a familiar place. Higher education is lowered. Teachers learn. Students teach. Writers write with questionable motives. What is art? Still digesting this chaotic gem. Thank You, Francine.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted April 28, 2000

      If you want to stay up all night reading a great book!!!!!

      No kidding, I read a lot of fiction, but this novel definitely grabbed my interest and kept it!!! I didn't get much sleep while I was finishing it, but the storyline follows a professor and a talented student collaborating on the student's novel. There is a constant flirtation between the two of them, and you may never be able to put it down once you're started asking yourself... 'Is he going to....', 'Is she trying to...', 'Will they...' The plot twists and turns until you don't know exactly what intentions anyone has. Even the end leaves you wondering because the characters are so realistic. Maybe someone you know!!!

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      Posted January 5, 2012

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      Posted October 30, 2008

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      Posted May 2, 2012

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      Posted March 22, 2011

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      Posted July 17, 2009

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      Posted November 6, 2008

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