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 is a professor in the creative writing program at Florida State University and the author of four books, including the novel The Veracruz Blues.
A literary arsonist with blistering wit, sends up both smug academics and politically correct undergrads in the satrical bonfire Blue Angel.
Her trenchant satire of sexual harassment gives political correctness a much deserved poke in the eye.
A mesmerizing and hilarious tour de force.
Prose is a pro, and this funny yet devastating novel will rock literary and academic worlds alike.
A darkly funny look at the paranoid star-chamber world of sexual correctness.
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.
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.|
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.|
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
The New York Times Book Review
This is a blisteringly funny yet compassionate novel about making bad decisions. As for the author, she never makes a false move.
What makes Prose's story particularly gripping and outrageous is how much
you care for Swenson...
The New York Times
Read an Excerpt
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.