Sunday, December 14, 2014

Book Review: "Blue Angel" by Francine Prose

Blue Angel (2000)
Francine Prose (1947)

314 pages

A professor falling for a student in class --- practically a cliché for novels set on college campuses. It would hardly be surprising if real-life professors read such stories and imagine that many of their fellow colleagues engage in such behavior, while their own cautiousness or unattractiveness leaves them on the sidelines.

How refreshing then, author Francine Prose turning this literary trope on its head in Blue Angel. Set at the fictional Easton College, deep in the woods of northern Vermont, her novel follows the gradual but inevitable descent into infatuation of Professor Ted Swenson for a student in his creative writing class. Instead of falling for one of the more attractive women in his class, however, Swenson finds his thoughts and emotions roiled by a “a skinny, pale redhead with neon-orange and lime-green streaks in her hair and a delicate sharp-featured face pierced in a half-dozen places, [wearing] a black leather motorcycle jacket and an arsenal of chains, dog collars, and bracelets.”(8)  The attraction? He discovers her to be a quite talented writer.

As the novel opens, Professor Swenson leads a quiet and unassuming life, happily married, and a daughter who has just gone off to college; he has settled into a comfortable teaching position in an out-of-the-way liberal arts college after having successfully published two novels himself. Progress on his third novel eludes him, however, and his struggles to write mix insidiously with a growing dissatisfaction over the mostly lackluster students he has encountered over many semesters, and a developing, if not quite acknowledged, mid-life crisis. Into his brooding mood breaks Angela Argo, a student who has sat silently through the first weeks of his class, never joining into the discussions of the other student’s writing, until she one day asks to meet with him in his office hours, to discuss her work.

Swenson expects a dreary meeting in which he has to carefully lower the overheated expectations and false hopes of yet another under-talented student-writer. The eventual discussion in his office does not improve his opinion, and when he accepts Angela’s request to review the first chapter of a novel she has been working on, he secretly anticipates the worst. To his surprise, however, he discovers that not only can Angela write well, but that her piece captures his attention, making him eager to read further --- and to learn more about its enigmatic young writer. He suggests that she not bring her story into class to be reviewed and discussed by the students, and instead continue to do this in conferences in his office, but he almost immediately questions his own request; is he protecting her from the criticism of untalented peers, or enjoying the opportunity to spend more time with this blossoming young author?

Angela’s story deals with a high school student’s attraction to one of her teachers, which only heightens Swenson’s sensitivity to the situation developing between them. He has always been careful to remind his students to guard against the assumption that a fictional work is autobiographical, but he finds himself struggling with this advice as she increasingly opens up to him in their conferences on her work. His thoughts swirling also with the strictures of a broader college campaign to pro-actively protect itself in the face of a growing, nationwide awareness of on-campus harassment, and a confusing mid-life stew of doubts and regrets, Swenson becomes unsure of his own intentions.

Soon the line blurs between helping a gifted student writer, and an attraction for a talented co-ed, as he finds himself helping her beyond what he normally would do for a student, and hiding his activities --- though innocent enough on their face --- from his colleagues and even his wife. When Angela’s own behavior leavers her intentions unclear, his life devolves into a confused and swirling mess of contradictory rationalizations and self-loathing. He allows situations to occur that are increasingly questionable, but goes forward with in part to prove that what has happened so far has no deeper implications.

Prose has Swenson tell the story, which ordinarily might leave us with less faith in him as a narrator, since we only get his side of the story. But she balances this by including Swenson’s silent replies in many situations: we hear the answers or comments he desperately wants to give to his students or colleagues or even his wife, but doesn’t, holding himself back in the moment, as we most all of us do at times with the running commentary in our minds. She also has him actively questioning his own thoughts and decisions, as he tries to discern between true feelings and false justifications. This lays open more deeply for the reader Swenson’s concerns, frustrations, and confusions, and makes him a more sympathetic character. Not simply a thoughtless philanderer, we understand the human frailty and ten thousand tiny rationalizations that lead him down the path to his personal perdition. That Prose finally does in the end allow him some hope for a future beyond his failings speaks also to a welcome recognition in this novel of the complexity our human condition and its refusal to exist as black or white, in either the choices presented to us, or the outcomes of the choices we make.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf