Margot is on her way down. At 44, she has come to realize that her acting career is on the skids. She landed the part of Sonya in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” when she was in the graduate program at Yale. Now she’s in an “off-off-off-off Broadway production of ‘Mister Monkey,’ the umpteen-hundredth revival of the cheesy but mysteriously durable musical based on the classic children’s novel.”

She’s not the only character struggling against a sinking sensation. In her beautifully crafted, incisively written novel (her 21st), Francine Prose spins a web of characters, all of whom are connected to the ridiculous play, all of whom are teetering, stumbling or close to hitting bottom.

There’s the teenager who plays Mister Monkey: He’s striving to grow up and away from his suffocating mother — and grappling with his awakening sense of sexual pleasure. There’s the play’s director: He’s aging out of his once — and briefly — illustrious career. And then there’s the author of the “classic children’s novel,” who sold out to create this oddly enduring story, off of which he lives lavishly. Despite his unearned success, he’s still fighting the demons he encountered decades ago during the Vietnam War.

The premise is fun, the cast of characters interesting enough, but what elevates the novel is Prose’s ability to let us see into the heart of each character, to render each so vulnerably human, so achingly real in just a few short paragraphs. From a grandfather’s “hopeless yearning” for his grandson to return his affection, to that grandson’s embarrassing failure to get the kids at his new school to like him, Prose makes us feel what those glancingly interrelated characters feel.

While engaging and accessible (how could a book with a title like that not be?), “Mister Monkey” doesn’t shy away from deeper themes. In fact, the book is laced with a sense of impending loss countered by the hope that we can find love — real, reciprocated, enduring love — in this life. It’s also peppered with enough literary references to Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Chekhov (in general) and “Uncle Vanya” (in particular) to please book snobs (myself included).

Early in the book, little seems to hold the characters together, aside from a series of coincidences. But Margot informs us that there is no such thing: “As every artist — every human being — knows: there are no coincidences, but rather a river of mystical connections into which, from time to time, we are allowed to dip our big toe.”

“Mister Monkey,” then, is about how it’s possible to make connections through a rehashed, third-rate children’s musical, mystical connections that are part of the most ordinary of lives.

 

Connie Nelson is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for lifestyles.

Mister Monkey
By:
Francine Prose.
Publisher: Harper, 285 pages, $26.99.
Event: Francine Prose will speak at the Twin Cities Book Festival on Oct. 15 at the State Fairgrounds.</p>