Mister Monkey by Francine Prose. Harper| October 2016| 285 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-239783-6
“They are in this together, everyone is happy to be here and disappointed to be here, glad to have a part in a play, glad to work for scale, but truthfully not all that overjoyed to be working in an off-off-off-off-Broadway production of Mister Monkey, the umpteen-hundreth revival of the cheesy but mysteriously durable musical based on the classic children’s novel.”
In writing this novel about a failing theatrical production, author Francine Prose [Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932, My New American Life, Blue Angel] addresses the rippling effect of the play on a bevy of players. The faltering stage production of a classic and popular children’s novel brings together a disparate group of actors, crew and audience members. Prose imagines how this rather basic play correlates to the mid-aged actress questioning her career, the child actor playing the titular monkey, the children’s book author and young child in the audience, that child’s teacher and others. Each chapter builds on the past one. The play’s based on a novel about a wealthy New York family who adopts an orphaned monkey. The father’s girlfriend thinks the beloved monkey stole her wallet. The case ends up in court. Absurdity ensues.
Each chapter addresses the play from a different character’s viewpoint adding more layers to the story behind the play. Margot wonders how she ended up working so hard and not advancing her career in the way she’d imagined. She’s playing Mister Monkey’s lawyer in a tiny theater. This isn’t the career she’d envisioned for herself at Yale. She reminds herself: “Art is art, theater is magic, no matter how humble the venue. Together they have transformed a house full of strangers into a group of people all rooting for Mister Monkey!” The home-schooled twelve-year-old actor in the monkey suit became engulfed in everything simian when he landed the role. He also harbors a massive crush on Margot. Costume designer Lakshmi believes “Mister Monkey is a nasty piece of imperialist propaganda justifying human trafficking, which you would know if you were smart enough to substitute a person for a monkey.” Eleanor works as a nurse full-time and acts on the side. The grandfather and his grandson, Edward, attended a matinee of the play. Prior to the play the grandfather started reading the book to his grandson. “The grandfather didn’t like the book either. It seemed obvious and preachy, full of improving lessons about race and class, honesty, justice, and some kind of . . . spirituality, for want of a better word.” Edward takes the playbill to school and a spirited argument about evolution erupts among the kindergartners.
How does this affect Edward’s teacher Sonya? She’s in trouble because her young pupils discussed Darwinism. Sonya meets a guy for dinner at a fancy restaurant where she ends up next to the book’s author. The date deteriorates quickly. Suffering from PTSD after Vietnam, Ray ending up writing Mister Monkey based on an experience during the war. He’s now wealthy. Whenever Ray receives theatrical royalties he takes whomever he’s dating or married to at the time to dinner at a restaurant called Enzo’s and he gives his favorite waiter Mario tickets to the production. Mario’s fiancée left him—“She was the one who pretended to be someone else, someone who wanted a life of simple contentment with Mario. By then Mario had moved back to his parent’s house for what he’d thought would be a few weeks.” Mario adores the theater and will attend any play and restaurant patrons gift him tickets often.
Prose based the novel on her own experience attending a children’s musical with her granddaughter at a small theater in Manhattan. Prose found the production lacking and tragic and at one quiet moment her granddaughter exclaimed: “Grandma, are you interested in this?” And so Prose wrote this novel to address that question. Fascinating connections allow Prose to explore shattered dreams, unfulfilled goals, success, failure, raising a child in Manhattan, career, love and friendship through wonderful characterizations, vivid prose and a sharp tone. It’s easy to become engulfed in this brilliant, darkly amusing and astutely observational novel.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.
–review by Amy Steele