‘The Vixen’ Book Club Discussion Guide
“The Holocaust had taught us: No matter what you believed or didn’t, the Nazis knew who was Jewish. They will always find us, whoever the next they would be. It was not only pointless but wrong—a sin against the six million dead—to deny one’s heritage…. I tried not to think about the sin I was half committing as I half pretended to come from a family that was nothing like my family, from a place far from Coney Island. If someone asked me if I was Jewish, I would have said yes, but why would anyone ask Simon Putnam, with his Viking-blond hair and blue eyes?” —The Vixen
A penetrative and humorous look at the McCarthy Era and the Jewish struggle for acceptance in post-World War II America, The Vixen by Francine Prose follows a young Jewish man, a recent Harvard graduate, as he navigates loyalty to his middle-class family and Jewish values, his conscience and his own ambitions in the glittering New York City publishing world.
Join us on Thursday, December 9, at 7 p.m. ET, as Hadassah Magazine Executive Editor Lisa Hostein interviews award-winning author Francine Prose about her newest book and its themes of antisemitism and acculturation in 1950s America and the impact of the Rosenberg trial on American Jewry. Register here.
Local book groups are a vital part of Hadassah for many members. If your chapter doesn’t already have one, now’s the time to start! We encourage groups to have their own discussions about The Vixen after the virtual event. To facilitate those discussions, we present the following discussion guide.
- The Vixen is set during the 1950s and the McCarthy Era, and the fears and politics of that time surface throughout the book. How is each character impacted by the paranoia and mistrust of that era? Do you think that the political and social dynamics—the divisiveness, fear and scapegoating—described in the book reflect the America of today?
- The book opens with Simon Putnam and his parents watching television news reports of the final hours of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—an American Jewish couple who were convicted of espionage and later executed—interspersed with sitcoms such as I Love Lucy and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. How does that opening, and the Putnams’ connection to Ethel, set up the dilemmas and frame the plot of the rest of the book? Discuss how the Putnam family reacts to the Rosenberg execution. How does their consumption of entertainment and news media mirror and/or differ from current entertainment and news consumption?
- Simon is a recent Harvard graduate, a fact mentioned frequently by his parents throughout the book. How do he and others view his college education? Does graduating from an elite university help him advance his career and allow for greater social mobility? Do you think the author is commenting on the value and benefits of a liberal arts education and prestigious schools through Simon’s experiences?
- Why do you think Simon chose to major in mythology and folklore? Why is he so fascinated by Viking folklore and stories of violent revenge? How does his interest relate to his personality and his Jewish immigrant background?
- One of Ethel Rosenberg’s last requests—“You will see to it that our names are kept bright and unsullied by lies”—is noted frequently in the book. And, indeed, lies, false narratives and the use and misuse of language are themes that run throughout The Vixen. How do Warren Landry, Simon and other characters bend the truth for ambition, patriotism or personal amusement and gain? Is it ever appropriate to hide the truth or mislead others, even slightly, in the service of career ambition? What about for politics or the perceived benefit of a nation? What do you think about Simon’s evolving choices in his editing of the bodice-ripper The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic?
- Discuss the importance of names in The Vixen. How are the names of different characters (for example, Madison Putnam, Anya Partridge and Warren Landry) indicative of personality? Simon recalls the story of how his grandfather’s name was changed to the Puritan “Putnam” as a joke by an antisemitic immigration official—and how that name change has helped Simon “pass” for a non-Jew. However, in recent years, the story of immigration officials at Ellis Island systemically changing Jewish surnames to fit an Anglo-American mold has been largely disproved in favor of a pattern of Jews changing their own names to assimilate and deflect American antisemitism. Think about the interplay of personal history and mythology in our reaction to the American Jewish experience. How does Simon’s family story color his understanding of his place in American society?
- Discuss Madison Putnam, Simon’s uncle, and Warren Landry, Simon’s boss at the publishing house. Why does Simon envy and want to emulate them? How does the author portray Uncle Maddie’s relationship to his immigrant and Jewish heritage?
- Compare and contrast the three women whom Simon falls for in the novel. How does the author use Elaine, Anya and Julia to explore the roles and social positions of women in the 1950s?
- Describe the importance of the story of the “jewfish.” How does Simon and his family experience and react to the overt and implicit antisemitism in American society, especially in New York City? What did you think of Simon’s ability to assimilate and pretend that he is not Jewish? Compare the antisemitism described in the book to current experiences of antisemitism in the United States.
- Discuss the ending of the book. How did Simon’s decision to go back to the amusement park in Coney Island after his parents’ deaths reflect both acceptance of and difficulties with his personal history and his choices as a parent? What do you think of his choice to go on that particular ride with his son?