Picks and Pans Review: Primitive People
by Francine Prose
Prose's wickedly funny eighth novel is set among the trendy upper-middle-class denizens of New York's mid-Hudson valley. These ironically named primitive people more than earn their comeuppance in the course of a narrative that skillfully combines the gothic, the grotesque and the glib into a bizarre comedy of ill manners.
Into the midst of this highbrow Ha-des-on-the-Hudson comes Simone, an educated 25-year-old Haitian woman. She takes charge of two children, George and Maisie, whose daft, self-absorbed mother, Rosemary, has been recently separated from her wealthy, philandering husband, Geoffrey. The emotional havoc that this split and its consequences engender in the children surfaces in George's morbid obsession with watching a video on Eskimo seal-slaughtering and Maisie's equally dark fascination with burying spent light bulbs in the backyard.
While Simone is the novel's main observer, the children serve as its moral center and chief victims, around whom the nominal adults conduct their sexual battles and betrayals.
With savage wit and stiletto-sharp dialogue, Prose performs the literary equivalent of a vivisection on Hudson Landing's hipper-than-thou artists and socialites. Besides Rosemary, a would-be sculptor whose current project is a series of obese female goddesses carved in pumice, and the wily Geoffrey, there's a narcissistic hairdresser named Kenny, a sheep-sacrificing Count, a homeopathic veterinarian and his bovine WASP bride, and Rosemary's best friend, Shelly, an interior decorator whose ulterior designs have more to do with her clients than their houses.
Only death seems to hold anyone's genuine interest and attention. Like a potent flowering garland it weaves through the book, connecting the characters one to the other in a menacing embrace. Here a laugh is as good as a scream and horror is as commonplace as a hug. Everyone gets out alive, but then they must go on living, with the newly rekindled awareness that to not perish is, funnily, to invite more peril. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $20)
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