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Book Review: Mister Monkey by Francine Prose (3/5)

17 May

This was yet another book that I had never heard of and probably never would have read if it weren’t for my book club. There are just far too many good books to read them all. Sometimes we need a kick in the pants to find the good ones.

Cover image via Goodreads

Mister Monkey by Francine Prose

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

This book started off with a summary of the book-turned-play that the plot revolves around. That threw me a little because I thought the rest of the book would focus on an odd story about a family in New York adopting a monkey. I was beyond relieved when it didn’t. I liked the revolving narrator in the book and how the next narrator was connected to the previous story. I did think the skip to Eleanor was a bit of a stretch, but it still made sense. More sense than the Monkey God talking but not ending the book. I liked how certain phrases and ideas were repeated (unhappy love affair, Darwin, etc.) and how the play was at the center of the book but never fully spelled out and explained. You explore the story from all sides without seeing it and by the end, I think I could tell you the plot fairly well.

The characters were great in this story. Each one was well-developed and they were all very different as well. Though they were all touched by the play in some way, everyone was affected differently or less directly than others. I loved how flawed they all were, it was very realistic, especially Sonya. She was the one I related to most because I’m closest to her age and I have friends that she reminded me of. I thought Margo’s flaws were great, too, and Mario. Honestly, all the characters were easy to fall in love with. Except for Adam. He was the worst.

Like I said, Sonya was my favorite character. She seemed slightly stuck in a bad situation and as hard as she tried, she wasn’t finding a way to climb out of it. I felt bad for her and could understand why she had the problems she did with sleeping pills. I wanted her date to go well but that was a dud from the beginning. I felt really bad about her situation at work, too. Sometimes you get talked into a corner and there’s no good way out and that’s what had happened to her.

I admired Eleanor. There were times I’ve wanted to tell a kid that they’re out of line when a parent won’t, but she had the nerve to do it. I also respected that she held two jobs, one a passion and one a calling. It must have been exhausting but she did well for herself. She also seemed the most collected and happy with her life out of all of the characters.

Francine Prose
Image via the Dayton Literary Peace Prize

I found Ray’s story really interesting. The actors are really involved in the musical but Ray is, of course, intertwined with the book. I liked how he talked about the back story of the novel and what he really wanted to say with it to start. It was interesting to hear how the message had changed and become so diluted with edits that he didn’t feel as connected to it anymore. I think a lot of writers worry about that and it was interesting to hear Ray, someone who was made famous and rich off his story, lament it.

The chapter from the Monkey God rubbed me the wrong way. I think it would have been better at the end, but stuck before Roger’s chapter, it seemed odd. Plus, it took away from the smooth transition from character to character. Eleanor to Roger would have made sense, but Eleanor to a God to Roger was a bit much. It seemed strange to see into the future of some of the character’s we’ve explored before we finish with the present. I wish it had been removed completely, I didn’t need to know about Ray and Sonya’s futures.

The audiobook I listened to had dual narrators in Nan McNamara and Kirby Heyborne. I’m glad that they used two for the male and female narrators, it was more believable than Eleanor in a man’s voice or the Grandfather in a woman’s. I’ve heard Heyborne before because he narrated the Peculiar Children series. Both did well incorporate the character’s disappointment in certain parts of their lives and the heaviness of humanity that was hanging over them all.

The lives of these people touched without some of them ever meeting. Eventually, Eleanor and the Grandfather meet and Margo and Mario hit it off, but some will never interact and it’s great to see how small things that other people do can affect us. It was a cool concept to jump from one to the other as they’ve interacted and I had a great time guessing who would come next.

Writer’s Takeaway: The flaws that Prose was able to give to each character made them come alive. You’d think such heavy flaws would weigh the characters down but it didn’t. I loved conscious-heavy Mario and pill-popping Ray and feeling-old Margo. It made them much more real and having well-developed adult characters was important in this book focused on a children’s play and all the ridiculousness involved in that.

I enjoyed this book but wasn’t blown away or overly captivated. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.


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Buy Mister Monkey by Francine Prose | Ken Brosky, Author