“The Vixen” is a sort of coming of age story that takes place in the 1950s, during America’s struggle to assess its morality in the McCarthy era. The novel, in many but not all ways, revolves around the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1953.
Simon Putnam narrates the story and has just graduated from Harvard with a degree in Folklore and Mythology. Despite a reference from his renowned professor Robertson Crowley, Simon is rejected from a graduate program in Norse literature at the University of Chicago. Simon is in awe of professor Crowley, explaining that when he sat through his lectures “I felt that I was hearing the answer to a question that I hadn’t known enough to ask.” After his rejection from the University of Chicago, Simon has no choice but to return home to his parents in Coney Island.
Two weeks after he returns from Harvard, Simon sits with his parents and watches the news surrounding the execution of the Rosenbergs. The Putnam family is sympathetic to the Rosenbergs and has a personal tie to Ethel. “My mother grew up on the Lower East Side, in the same tenement building as Ethel…They went to the same high school.” These were not things you told people during those times. Nor did you tell people that, despite your name, you are Jewish.
Simon’s uncle, Madison Putnam, is a distinguished literary critic and arranges for Simon to go to work for Landry, Landry and Bartlett, a distinguished publisher of literary fiction. Simon’s job is junior assistant editor, with the responsibility of reviewing unsolicited manuscripts. On his first day he meets Julia, who has been fired and whose job he is taking. Julia gives him some tips and leaves. No one at the publishing house really acknowledges Simon, except for Warren Landry, one of the named partners and Elaine Geller, the Firm’s publicity director. One of the other named partners, Preston Bartlett, has had some sort of break down and is living in an asylum. He shows up at the offices from time to time.
Warren Landry is described as a charismatic lady’s man, with a past in military intelligence. “His diction and accent combined the elongated vowels of a New England blueblood with the dentalized plosives and flat a’s of a Chicago gangster.” After about six months at Landry, Landry and Bartlett, Warren Landry pays a visit to Simon and assigns him the job of editing a novel called “The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic”, “a steamy bodice-ripper based on the Rosenberg case.” This is not the type of novel the Firm would normally consider. Warren explains to Simon that the firm is languishing and in need of money and that he believes the novel will be a best seller and bring the firm to solvency. Simon is also told that the existence of the novel is a secret.
“It was strange that I, of all the young editors in New York, should have been chosen to work on that book…My being assigned “The Vixen” was, I thought, pure coincidence.”
As he reads through the novel Simon struggles with its content and its portrayal of Ethel Rosenberg as a sexual temptress, someone very different from who she was. He has lunch with his Uncle Madison in an effort to seek advice without disclosing the information about the novel. His Uncle, an arrogant man, advises him to make the “lady writer…fall in love with you.”
Simon asks to meet the mysterious author, Anya Partridge, who interestingly lives in the same asylum as Prescott Bartlett. They immediately begin a romantic relationship.
Simon continues to struggle with editing what is a terrible novel and his interactions with Anya become ever more steamy until suddenly, Anya disappears. When Simon returns to the asylum to ask after her, he decides to pay a visit to Preston Bartlett, who advises that the firm is not quite what he thinks it is. He also learns a bit about his favorite professor, although that comes later. From here, things become extremely interesting, as Simon struggles with his ethical obligations and morality. The novel ends with this thought about life: “Everything was beautiful except what we do when we forget our humanity, our human dignity, our higher purpose.” Words to live by!
I loved this novel. It is a great story with lots of twists and turns and interesting and complex characters. It is beautifully written and gives the reader a lot to think about in the midst of all the action. The novel can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.