10/100 — Review | BLUE ANGEL by Francine Prose

In fiction, there are a few things I can’t resist:

  • historical horror (see: Michelle Paver, Dan Simmons, Stephen King’s Rose Red works)

  • stories about witches

  • stories about writing

  • stories set on college campuses

Blue Angel, Francine Prose’s 2000 novel about a writing teacher led astray, ticks two of those boxes.

Ted Swenson is an ageing novelist with a comfortable, somewhat stagnated life, teaching creative writing at Euston college while failing to write his third novel. Everything is fine until Angela Argo, a formerly quiet student of his, shows him the first chapter of her novel. Her writing turns out to be excellent. Enamoured with her talent Swenson begins to meet up regularly with Angela to support her, all while his university gears up to deal with the rise of sexual harassment charges happening in academia.

Unlike some of his fellow teachers, Swenson’s never slept with a student, nor his colleague Madga, the poetry teacher. He’s a good guy. That is, until clumsy, nervous, self-deprecating Angela seduces him with her words, her stories about forbidden love and desire between older men and younger women. We watch him watch himself fall for her, and like a car heading straight for a cliff, we see it coming, we can’t look away, and when it happens, it’s as devastating as it is unsurprising.

Blue Angel is a novel about ambition, class, and good intentions gone wrong. Life imitates art around every corner: Swenson’s novel Blue Angel is based on the movie At the Blue Angel, both being stories about men who ruin their lives to please a women who doesn’t love them back; his unfinished third novel is a retelling of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, an ambitious man’s struggle to rise to success in a rigid class system; and most obviously, Angela’s novel Eggs is about a high school student’s affair with her music teacher. Swenson knows the stories, yet when it happens to him, he is unable to stop it. When Angela starts dropping tactical hints about how much she thinks about him, or aggressively calls him ‘such a guy’ to break down their student-teacher relationship, he doesn’t see the wood for the trees. He’s a good guy.

Other reviews I've read call Blue Angel a satire of modern academia. I read it as a character study. Swenson is a hilariously hopeless middle-aged man who has been cruising along so comfortably that he’s forgotten how to take control of his own life. When Angela eventually accuses him of sexual harassment and he is put on trial for a much more extreme version of events than he experienced, the truth almost doesn’t matter anymore. He just drifts along with it all, carried by the waves of scandal just like he’s let himself get carried towards them, leaning into the attraction a 19-year old engineered in him.

I found Blue Angel hugely entertaining, and I’m a little sad I’ve finished it already.

Author: Francine Prose
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication date: 2000
Rating: 4/5