Primitive People

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Overview

What are these barbaric rituals that pass for social and family life? Who are these fearsome creatures who linger in decaying mansions and at glittery malls, trendy weddings and dinner parties? These are the questions that trouble Simone, a beautiful, smart young Haitian woman. She has fled the chaotic violence of Port-au-Prince only to find herself in a world no less brutal or bizarre — a seemingly civilized landscape where dead sheep swing from trees, lightbulbs are ceremonially buried, fur-clad mothers carve ...

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Primitive People: A Novel

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Overview

What are these barbaric rituals that pass for social and family life? Who are these fearsome creatures who linger in decaying mansions and at glittery malls, trendy weddings and dinner parties? These are the questions that trouble Simone, a beautiful, smart young Haitian woman. She has fled the chaotic violence of Port-au-Prince only to find herself in a world no less brutal or bizarre — a seemingly civilized landscape where dead sheep swing from trees, lightbulbs are ceremonially buried, fur-clad mothers carve terrifying goddesses out of pumice...and where learning to lie is the principal rite of passage into adulthood.

The primitive people of this darkly satiric novel are not, as one might expect, the backward denizens of some savage isle, but the wealthy inhabitants of the Hudson Valley in upstate New York.

The primitive people in this darkly hilarious novel are not where one might expect. Their native habitat is upstate New York's bucolic Hudson Valley, where they enact the barbaric rituals that pass for social and family life in decaying mansions and at glittery malls, trendy weddings and dinner parties.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Through the eyes of protagonist Simone, an illegal immigrant from Haiti who becomes a ``caregiver'' to the children of unforgivably self-absorbed parents, Prose illuminates some of the ludicrous aspects of our culture. May
Library Journal
Simone is an illegal immigrant from Haiti, working as an au pair for a family in upstate New York. There, she learns about American life from the shallow, self-centered ``primitive people'' around her: her employer Rosemary, who is camping out with her withdrawn children in the ancestral home of her estranged husband; Rosemary's brittle and caustic best friend Shelly, an interior decorator; and Shelly's narcissistic, sexually ambiguous boyfriend Kenny, who owns a children's hair salon. In Simone's adjustment to her new life, Prose's latest novel is reminiscent of Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy LJ 11/1/90, while its biting satire and anti-male attitude recall Fay Weldon. Although this book is entertaining to read, it doesn't have enough substance or sympathetic characters to be totally successful. Prose's talent for skewering the pretensions of contemporary life is shown to better advantage in her short story collection Women and Children First LJ 3/1/88.-- Patricia Ross, Westerville P.L., Ohio
Kirkus Reviews
Prose's seventh novel (Bigfoot Dreams, 1986, etc.) inspires many a giggle as it relates the odd and fascinating adventures of a Haitian au pair in an eccentric upper-class Hudson Valley household—social satire at its slyest and best. Shy, beautiful Simone of Port-au-Prince had no choice but to leave Haiti when she did—not only had the government fallen, but, more devastatingly, Simone's artist lover had dumped her for her best friend and Simone couldn't face the humiliation. Quitting her job as chief assistant to the US cultural attach‚, Simone buys a fake green card and an illegal US marriage certificate, flies to New York, and winds up a few days later in the very bohemian household of Rosemary Porter. Rosemary, a wiry-haired sculptor of fertility objects, self-obsessed mother of two morbid children, and estranged, middle-aged wife of wealthy Geoffrey Porter of an influential Hudson Valley family, takes to Simone instantly, no questions asked—giving her a tour of Geoffrey's crumbling, chaotic mansion (from which they might be evicted at any moment) and introducing her to young George and Maisie ("All you have to do is make sure the kids don't kill each other...and cheer them up! I don't care how. Lift their little spirits somehow!"). Not surprisingly, Simone soon finds herself identifying more with her shell-shocked charges than with their wildly irrational elders. She huddles with George and Maisie around the Porters' massive kitchen table, wolfing down red beans, rice, and fried plantains while fending off casual references to "primitive" Haiti and trying to make sense of a world in which philandering fathers, dithering mothers, double-crossing best friends, suburbanwitches, and the homicidal Count next door hold the fate of innocents in their unsteady hands. As always, Prose's wit sparkles. Another winner by a writer who has hit her stride.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060934699
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/28/2001
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Meet the Author

Francine Prose

Francine Prose is the author of twenty works of fiction. Her novel A Changed Man won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Blue Angel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her most recent works of nonfiction include the highly acclaimed Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, and the New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. The recipient of numerous grants and honors, including a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, a Director's Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, Prose is a former president of PEN American Center, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 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



"And this is the attic," Mrs. Porter said, "where supposedly my husband's ancestors hid out during the Civil War. They'd heard rumors that the Confederate navy was sailing up the Hudson. Of course by then the Porters had already been inbreeding for several generations past the point of total genetic depletion."

Why was Mrs. Porter taking Simone on this needlessly thorough tour of her mansion, volunteering personal and historic details Simone would never need, visiting places her duties would never take her, such as, Simone hoped, the attic? You'd think Simone was buying the house instead of wanting to come and work there, applying for a job as a cook and caregiver for Mrs. Porter's two children -- two bright little spirits, their mother said, who lately seemed slightly dejected.

Mrs. Porter took a dutiful breath -- deep inside her antique fur coat, her fragile bird-skeleton seemed to rattle -- and plunged ahead with the tiresome task of leading Simone through the attic, a labyrinth of gutted armchairs, fractured mirrors, curlicues of peeled veneer, lethal hairdryers, and toasters like mini-electric chairs. Simone stopped to stare -- rudely, she feared -- at some paintings stacked against a wall: portraits, caramelized by age, of pale ghostly men and women with ragged, empty, almond-shaped holes where their eyes should have been.

"Oh, the family portraits," Mrs. Porter said. "I suppose they do look affreux, When the children were tiny I used to let them cut out the eyes for their paper dolls. What could I have been thinking of? Some marvelous earlyprimitives. Well, they're Geoffrey's ancestors. Probably they deserve it. How do you say? Les enfants." She snipped the air. "Pour les poupées de papier."

And why was Mrs. Porter speaking French? Simone understood English and spoke with only a faint Haitian accent. In Haiti she'd studied with American nuns and then at the university, and though she worried that she sounded less intelligent in English than in French or Creole, it was difficult to tell, and in any case seemed appropriate; so many of the people to whom she spoke English expected her to be stupid. Certainly this had been true at the American embassy in Port-au-Prince, where Simone had been chief assistant to the U.S. Cultural Attaché, and also at the gallery where Simone worked weekends, persuading American tourists to buy her fiancé Joseph's paintings.

Joseph painted dancing couples, drummers, old women smoking cigars, black girls in white dresses carrying laundry on their heads -- and told Simone he hated himself for painting the white tourist's dream of Haiti. That was why he drank so much and ran off with every woman he met, though of course he'd given up women as soon as he met Simone. How hard it had been to see in him the person who drew those carefree figures, so relaxed they looked poured into their chairs, spilled out across the dance floor. Joseph yelled and threw beer bottles when the slightest thing went wrong. Then Duvalier left and the violence surfaced and scared off all the tourists, so that they still had the army and the tonton macoute but no more buyers for Joseph's work. As soon as Joseph understood what had changed and what hadn't, he first grew chilly to Simone and then ran off with Simone's friend Inez.

Simone and Joseph used to laugh at Inez, with her rich society-dentist husband and her crazy love affairs. But of course Simone was the crazy one for thinking Joseph wouldn't be curious, or that it was in her interest to enlist him as an ally against crazy love like Inez's. Inez bought six of Joseph's paintings, the only sale that month. It was just a few nights later that Simone saw them together in a café, Joseph's arm draped casually around Inez's shoulders, as if they were the window frame of some hot flashy car he was driving.

"I know what you must be thinking!" Mrs. Porter said. "You're thinking it's some kind of voodoo! You're looking at these paintings and thinking the Porter family must be into some kind of black magic!"

"No, not at all," Simone said quickly, though the truth was: No, not exactly. Mutilating paintings was very different from, say, decapitating a rooster. But for a moment she'd thought Mrs. Porter might practice some strange religion. There were portraits of children and puppy dogs, and their eyes had been scissored out, too. Simone was Catholic, though it had been years since she'd gone to confession.

"Oh, Haiti," Mrs. Porter was saying. "People used to go there. That marvelous creepy Graham Greene hotel and all that great naive art. But AIDS didn't do it a favor, exactly, and then there was all that violence, drowned boat people washing up on the beach all over the Florida Keys. I hear Port-au-Prince is a nightmare. Dead bodies on the street."

In fact, there had been a body on the sidewalk near Simone's house. One morning almost a year ago, on her way to work, she'd found a man sliced open from his collarbone to his waist. From a distance Simone thought the man was wearing a flower-printed shirt, but up close the print turned out to be dirt and hibiscus-colored bloodstains. Two fat crows hopped around, poking the corpse, interested and efficient.

Even so, even with the daily riots and killings and strikes, Simone might have stayed in Haiti. She wasn't the type of person to just move to another country. She was more likely to stay put and pray that nothing too awful happened to her. Inertia would have reconciled her to remaining where she was, insofar as you could be reconciled to gunfire rattling all night and the smoke of burning cars hanging over the morning.

But seeing Joseph with...

Primitive People. Copyright © by Francine Prose. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2001

    Fantastic, brilliant

    The art of caricature is here used to penetrate to the very heart of contemporary upper middle class social reality. Francine Prose ranks at the very top of current-day writers of serious fiction.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2008

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