Prose has transformed the classic Jewish folktale of the dybbuk, a troublesome spirit that can inhabit and terrorize the human body, into a lively and entertaining children's story. Her light touch and deft wit weave together familiar strands of Jewish folklore from sources as varied as the tales of Sholom Aleichem (popularized in Fiddler on the Roof) to the mythical town of fools known as Chelm. Her story opens with the tradition that 40 days before a baby is born, the angels in heaven get together and decide whom the baby will marry when it grows up. Leah, from the town of Chopski, and Chonon, from the town of Klopski, not only are so destined, but actually fall in love at first sight. Leah's father interferes by trying to marry his daughter off to old Benya, the most powerful man in the village. At the wedding, Leah seems possessed by a dybbuk using the voice of Chonon, which disappears, of course, when Chonon replaces Old Benya as the groom. True love and the angels triumph. Podwal uses a palette of teal, magenta, orange and turquoise to give a vibrant flavor to the story instead of the nostalgic, old-world feeling so common to books about the shtetl. Ages 5-up. (Mar.)
School Library Journal
Gr 1-3A story that combines and loosely adapts two Jewish legends. The first is that 40 days before we are born, the angels match us to our future mate; the second is that a living person can be occupied by a dead person's spirit that can find no peace or by an evil spirit. In Prose's story, Leah is a young woman whose father will not allow her to marry Choron, a poor boy with whom she is in love. Instead, he arranges her marriage to a rich old man. Unknown to all, the girl and her young man had already been matched in heaven before their birth. At the wedding ceremony, Choron occupies Leah's body and possesses her spirit. A comical exorcism ensues but to no avail. Giving in, the father sends for Choron and the happy pair are wed. This is a silly noodlehead story, charmingly illustrated by Podwal. However, this adaptation errs in that a living person cannot occupy another living person, not in any tradition, and a tragic theme has been transformed into a tale that does not honor its religious or folkloric source. Scores of children will be misled about a timeless legend because of this distortion. In his numerous retellings, Eric Kimmel combines snippets of one folktale or legend with pieces of another to create new tales, but he always remains true to the essence of the original. Unfortunately, that is not so in Dybbuk.Marcia W. Posner, Holocaust Memorial and Educational Center of Nassau County, Glen Cove, NY
Known as much for her wit as she is for her eclecticism, Francine Prose is a true renaissance woman of the literary set. She has written essays, art and literary reviews, translations, children’s books, novellas, and short stories -- not to mention bitingly humorous novels like Bigfoot Dreams and Blue Angel.
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 oeuvrefrom novels and short stories to essays and criticisma 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 subjecta 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 conventionssuch as the illicit romantic relationship at the heart of her best known novel, Blue Angelshe 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 funnywho'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 thinkersfrom John Lennon's wife Yoko Ono to Alice Liddell, the child who enchanted Lewis Carroll.