HarperPerennial, $14.95, 432 pp.
In the early 1970s, one might have thought few reviewers would give much space to a first-time novel about wonder-working Hasidim written by an author barely over twenty-five years old. But the time was right. Elie Wiesel had recently published Souls on Fire, Isaac Bashevis Singer was all the rage, and the jacket photo of Judah the Pious showed a young woman, her black hair long and romantic, her features as severe as Wiesel’s, with a look that indicated she took the story seriously. That guileless seriousness about her fiction has distinguished Francine Prose ever since. Her second novel, The Glorious Ones, picked up where Judah left off, profiling a troupe of players in the commedia dell’arte who believed they were the characters they portrayed. Her third novel was a biography of the voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. Prose was staking out her terrain amid wild forms of belief.
Thirty years on, we have had seventeen books from the same young woman with the remarkable gravitas. Prose’s novels of the eighties and nineties addressed the willingness of all kinds of people to believe the impossible: goddess-worshipping feminists, tabloid writers, imported domestics, navel-gazing academics. In a literary scene obsessed with disillusionment, she remained earnest, even taking time out...