Goldengrove

The title of Francine Prose's novel Goldengrove is taken from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins about a young girl, Margaret, who mourns the end of summer: "Goldengrove's unleaving." The story centers on the aftermath of the drowning death of a 17-year-old, also named Margaret, in present-day Upstate New York, and in particular her family's emotional struggle in its wake. As one might expect, her father, Henry, regrets naming her after a girl in a poem about death. "I used to love that poem. Fleeting youth, mortality, time, age, innocence -- the whole metaphysical enchilada. What did I think life was going to be, some kind of?English paper?"

The story is narrated by Margaret's sister, Nico, who at 13 is not inclined to unwrap any metaphysical enchiladas. Nico has a logical, scientific bent and struggles to understand her more dramatic sister, a singer who was deemed a poet with a surreal sense of humor. While Joan Didion limited herself to a year of magical thinking in her nonfiction exploration of bereavement, Prose's Nico only allows a few months' swirling in supernatural shock before coming to her empirical senses.

But what a summer. While her mother, Daisy, becomes a zoned-out pill head and her father distracts himself looking for "doomsday vibrations" while researching end-of-the-world cults for the book he's writing, Nico is on her own. In a sense, she always has been: her parents are self-involved ex-hippies who offer vague theoretical advice in lieu of parenting. "They often talked as if the four of us were involved in some group child-raising project, as if treating us like semi adults would make us do what they wanted." Here, the book snickers at easy-target ex-hippies without offering insight into their anxieties, and its rote references to the threat of ecological disaster risk sliding into glib cultural code.

Daisy vacillates between numbness and irrational fury, and Prose's trademark wit is at its keenest when observing this character. She's kinder to Henry, who is more sympathetic and complex. He establishes routines with Nico that help them get through the slow and tragic moments that are the survivors' lot but fails to notice her slide into dangerous emotional territory.

There is no real plot; the story's arc is the spread of grief and the unsteady return to life after the loss of a loved one. The writing is most impressive when Prose details the experience of grief, artfully creating an atmosphere drenched with emotions that are universal but never clichéd. Margaret was Nico's hero, mentor, and advocate, and her loss is unbearable. Nico, who sees herself as a chubby, plain girl whom boys treat "like a window through which they kept looking for a hotter girl with bigger breasts," was in awe of her sister's beauty and confidence. Although Prose is a genius at portraying the inner world of insecurity and self-doubt, there are too many times when overly explanatory repetition intrudes. This reminiscing narration clashes with what feels truly real in teenage Nico and makes her sound implausibly wise beyond her years.

But anyone who has mourned deeply will relate to her swerves from mundane shock ("I couldn't remember simple words, the purposes of household objects") to the vertiginous quest for the ghost of her sister. In a turn that comes as a surprise, Nico receives actual waking visitations and omens, as well as messages in dreams. Unfortunately, after she drops her desire for contact with the beyond, these events seem like mere spiritual seasoning.

Nico gets into trouble when she and Margaret's bereft boyfriend, Aaron, start meeting in secret to comfort each other. "Maybe it was possible to decontaminate certain activities, the way flood victims wash the silt off family treasures and set them back on the mantel." A well-timed few weeks' growth spurt and grief-induced weight loss cause Nico to resemble Margaret so strongly that Aaron's intentions toward her veer into selfishness. He induces Nico to wear her older sister's clothes and perfume, and to reenact scenes he shared with Margaret.

As the sexual tension and secrecy build, so does the suspense. Being with Aaron, who is a painter, expands Nico's artistic and imaginative sensibilities but draws her ever closer to losing her virginity in a stinking cabin to an older boy who is using her. Is Aaron a "squirrelly little adonis" with a "screw loose," as Henry calls him, a young man driven mad with grief, or someone more sinister? Wisely, Prose doesn't define him and is equally compassionate toward Nico and the mistakes she makes, addled by obsessive desire and the real fear that she is losing herself in an attempt to become her sister.

The nagging problem is that her sister's personality is also borrowed -- from old movie gestures and bluesy chanteuses -- and not developed enough before her death for her to be more than a pretty blonde in a series of vintage poses. The novel is a tightly woven basket of loss, with its symbolic connections precisely tied, but at the center of this emptiness there is another hole: Margaret. It's impossible to feel sad about a too-perfect character I barely know.

By bathing Margaret in light with no shadows, Prose manipulates the reader into becoming the same type of unhelpful person the narrator dislikes: someone who tries to comfort a mourner by relating her own tale of loss. To stay engaged I had to make a raft of my own missing persons or drown in disconnection. Maybe that's the point: The poem makes it clear that grief is about the griever, the sense of loneliness, not about the loved one. "Now no matter, child, the name: / Sorrow's springs are the same." However, this piece of solipsism glosses over the uniqueness of the departed and a relationship that is gone forever.

At the end, it is revealed, summarily, that the narrator is a grown woman, a geologist with a husband and children of her own, which explains the often precocious and prim tone taken by her supposedly younger self. This decision keeps the book out of the Young Adult category but also results in an uneven voice that keeps the reader off balance. I would like to know how Nico resolved herself so neatly into an adult, one who remarks, "It makes sense that birth and death are what people have in common. They want to think it can teach them something they can pass on to someone else." The inference that they are wrong has a chilly clarity -- like a lake where few would dare to swim.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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