Mister Monkey, Francine Prose: Book Review

A book that scrutinizes the obsessions of modern urban life with humor.

francine prose mister monkey book reviewHarper Perennial / Stephanie Berger for HarperCollins
Mister Monkey Book Cover Mister Monkey
Francine Prose
Adult Fiction
Harper Perennial
2016
Paperback
285

The acclaimed New York Times bestselling author weaves an ingenious, darkly humorous, and brilliantly observant story that follows the exploits and intrigue of a constellation of characters affiliated with an off-off-off-off Broadway children’s musical.

Mister Monkey—a screwball children’s musical about a playfully larcenous pet chimpanzee—is the kind of family favorite that survives far past its prime. Margot, who plays the chimp’s lawyer, knows the production is dreadful and bemoans the failure of her acting career. She’s settled into the drudgery of playing a humiliating part—until the day she receives a mysterious letter from an anonymous admirer . . . and later, in the middle of a performance, has a shocking encounter with Adam, the twelve-year-old who plays the title role.

Francine Prose’s effervescent comedy is told from the viewpoints of wildly unreliable, seemingly disparate characters whose lives become deeply connected as the madcap narrative unfolds. There is Adam, whose looming adolescence informs his interpretation of his role; Edward, a young audience member who is candidly unimpressed with the play; Ray, the author of the novel on which the musical is based, who witnesses one of the most awkward first dates in literature; and even the eponymous Mister Monkey, the Monkey God himself.

With her trademark wit and verve, Prose delves into humanity’s most profound mysteries: art, ambition, childhood, aging, and love. Startling and captivating, Mister Monkey is a breathtaking novel from a writer at the height of her craft.

This review contains quotes from the novel.

*Special thanks to Harper Perennial for allowing us to read Francine Prose’s Mister Monkey.

In Mister Monkey, Francine Prose writes a poignant novel about contemporary life as seen through a children’s musical which explores the obsessions with modern urban life. It was also adapted into a children’s book called Mister Monkey the Musical. The musical, however, is an off-broadway production taking place in a downtown theatre; sadly, it is about to be over.

Margot, who acts as Portia in the play, is annoyed with the fact that she has dropped so low among her thespian peers and is worried her career as an actress will disappear faster than she knows it. The other actors in the play are also dealing with their own share of similar anxieties as Margot; yet the one question that rings most true for these actors comes from a 5-year-old who asks his grandfather, “Are you interested in this?” The actors heard this little boy from the audience during a live show, and realized they have bigger problems to contend with.

“It is then that she hears a child in the second or third row say, very loud and clear, ‘Grandpa, are you interested in this?

Grandpa, are you interested in this? What a rude little freak! Any child who could put those words together is old enough to know better. Old enough to know that if you talk that loudly during a silence in a tiny theater with weird acoustics, chances are pretty good that everyone can hear you, even the actors on stage.

Grandpa, are you interested in what? In this blood, these tears? In these lives, the only lives that these actors will ever have, in the point which they have reached in their lives and from which they can only hope and pray to ascend?”

-excerpt from Francine Prose’s Mister Monkey

After this question is asked, different narratives happen in the book: Margot, the chimp played by Adam, the little boy’s grandfather, the little boy himself, the little boy’s kindergarten teacher, the creator of the play, a person who loves the theatre, the costume designer, and the show’s director. Each perspective helps guide the main narrative by giving their take in the world of theatre and of this show, Mister Monkey.  Each character or narrator has their own take on what this play means to them. I like how Prose gave so many different perspectives because it helped show the modern urban life.

Prose’s use of diction and syntax makes for a really well-written novel. (It was also selected as one of the 100 Notable Books from the New York Times Book Review last year.) So if that doesn’t convince you to go pick this up, then I don’t know what will.

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Jessica Duffield
I am a sophomore in college. Books are my passion and I hope to work in book publishing once I graduate.