Francine Prose lives in New York City and is the author of sixteen books of fiction. Her novel A Changed Man won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Blue Angel was a finalist for the National Book Award.
"Prose's gift for satire is stunning."
“Come see why Francine Prose is one of a handful of truly indispensable American writers.”
I bought my copy of Blue Angel by Francine Prose for a few thin reasons. First, I was tickled that someone who wrote fiction would have such a fortunate last name. Second, the cover intrigued me: a black-and-white photo of a student and teacher, focused on their studies except for the fact that the student holds up the back of her skirt. I probably read the first few paragraphs, too, and noticed the accolades on the cover, but mostly I remember the image. I was nineteen years old and had decided that I most certainly would judge books by their covers. I spent about six months browsing the shelves at Barnes and Noble, purchasing books based on cover design.
This is not to say that I knew anything about graphic design. It means I was (and probably still am) susceptible to certain cues. I tended toward images of young girls: a pair of scraped-up knees and the hem of a skirt, a freckled face with red lips and a cigarette, skinny shins sprouting from sneakers. Analyze this how you will, but it led me to stories about girls around my age, almost all of which helped me wrap my head around my own life.
I didn’t go straight to a four-year university despite the fact that my grades and test scores could have gotten me in most anywhere. I had spent half my high school career involved in the theater department at a local community college, and when I graduated, I didn’t want to leave. I enrolled full-time, paying my own way with the token scholarships I’d received from Kiwanis, etc, and lived at home. For the first year, I was almost sublimely happy with the situation. I’d helped a friend move into her dorm at UCSD and the experience terrified me; I was much more comfortable in classes full of adults and running-start high-schoolers than I would have been in a pool of my so-called peers.
But as happy as I was at the beginning, when my first two years of school ended, I was more than ready to move on. I was not only done with my general education courses; I was done with the theater as well. I wanted something more permanent, without the constant cycle of auditions, something that wouldn’t change from night to night and then disappear altogether. I began to write stories: dark, terrible things in which girls like me performed melodramatic acts (I was socially stunted and nineteen, after all). I had been writing — mostly fiction — off and on since I learned my letters, but now I saw my work differently. This was art. Maybe it was bad art, but I could learn how to make it good art. I had to read more good books and find out what good art was, but aside from the classics, I didn’t know where to look. So I went to the bookstore and judged books by their covers. Thus I found Blue Angel.
It starts in a creative writing classroom, in the mind of Professor Swenson as the students get settled before class begins. Perhaps Swenson’s judgments of his students and their work should have scared me off a course of study in creative writing, rather than piquing my interest. Of course, the presence of Angela Argo, the deeply troubled and talented antagonist, provided proof that not all fiction students are judged harshly. Angela’s talents provide Swenson with all the attraction he needs to become entangled in this unlikely student/teacher affair. Her novel within the novel provides Swenson a happy diversion: from his teaching duties, his writing, his own family. He pours his enthusiasm into Angela’s writing, and though he surprises himself by doing so, into Angela herself, until he is trapped. While he’s thinking about love and art, she’s thinking about publication. She exploits Swenson’s connections, his personal life, and the political climate of the school — ruffled by a sexual harassment case at a nearby college — to get what she wants and come out looking like a victim.
We spend the whole novel inside Swenson’s head, so it seems possible that all this plotting is in his imagination. Except Blue Angel is one of the most carefully plotted and foreshadowed books I’ve ever read. It’s as tense as a thriller, but with stakes that feel supremely real. From the opening paragraph, nothing is revealed that won’t be important later, a fact that made this a perfect transition from plays to novels. Prose adheres to Checkov’s rule, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”
My connection with Blue Angel will always be more than the combination of words and characters and a story. It kicked me in the pants and sent me stumbling toward creative writing, a path down which I would eventually find myself, quite unwittingly, the student of a man who had been taught by Francine Prose. I’ve since had a lot of guidance in my reading, but hundreds of books later — a few of which also deal with academia and the student/teacher affair — I’m still impressed by Blue Angel’s style, its characters, and its tight construction. It’s the first book I ever read that combined engaging plot with sharp writing: a combination that still feels rare