On a placid New England lake, teenage sisters—“two Cleopatras in our royal barge”—go rowing. Margaret, who is seventeen, luxuriates in the sunny spring day, smoking though she already has a “stutter on her heart graph.” Nico, four years younger, questions Margaret about her sex life and frets: because her sister smokes, because of global warming, because she thinks she’s fat. Shrugging off these worries, Margaret dives into the water and swims toward the family’s dock. Nico, reclining in the boat, wonders whether her sister’s goodbye is angry or affectionate. By the time she sits up, Margaret has disappeared forever. That heart stutter has plunged Nico into the realm of early grief, just as she is on the verge of her own sexual awakening.
Wresting youthful guilt and sorrow from the clutches of melodrama and manipulation is a challenge for any fiction writer, but Francine Prose is well-equipped for the task. A writer of incisive intelligence, reach, and wit, she has written a dozen novels, two collections of stories, and a wide range of nonfiction. She is known especially for her recent novels Blue Angel and A Changed Man, which take on, respectively, a feckless middle-aged creative writing professor who beds a scheming young student, and a Holocaust survivor who teams up with a reformed neo-Nazi. Prose is not afraid, that is, of prickly subjects; nor, in the past, has she been afraid of religious ones. Several early works explore mysticism, and when she published the 1981 novel Household Saints, about an Italian-American girl’s devotion to St. Thérèse, the Little Flower, many readers were convinced she was Catholic. She is not, and her more recent work has in any case been focused on the material, rational world rather than on the mystical or spiritual. Her title’s allusion to “Goldengrove unleaving,” from the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child,” is not the only nod to religious faith in this novel, but it may be the most reverent.
Prose can be both fierce and generous in her fiction and in her criticism. Her generosity, particularly in regard to her protagonist Nico, is on full display in Goldengrove—but no ferocity is in sight. Goldengrove is an intentionally subdued novel, one that treats grief with intelligence and empathy, even with delicacy. Nico’s voice, recounting her own submersion into sorrow, is curiously restrained, as if her narrative has internalized Emily Dickinson’s line “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.”
Nico is now the sole surviving child of formerly commune—dwelling Children of the Sixties who named their first daughter Margaret after the famous first line of that Hopkins poem, and Nico after the Velvet Underground singer (and heroin addict). Nico ponders the ironies of both names to discern her parents’ affections. Her father owns a bookstore called Goldengrove, where he spends much of his time writing his own book about doomsday beliefs and cults. Her mother has a job writing liner notes for classical CDs, and spends much of her spare time with the piano or doing yoga. The family is loving, but completely flummoxed, as all families would be by a loss of this magnitude, and Nico is largely on her own when it comes to working through her grief.
Her sister’s boyfriend, Aaron, becomes the vehicle by which Nico comes to terms with her own identity. Aaron is a young painter who secretly meets the younger sister for conversations about his dead high-school lover. Their interactions escalate into sexual attraction, and the last third of the novel is fraught with the new risk to Nico’s fragile sense of self. That self has, throughout the novel, been relentlessly dissected in relationship to her beautiful, sexy older sister, a singer and a classic-movie aficionado—movies, music, painting, and writing are invoked through virtually every secondary character.
All the motifs that define Nico’s character in contrast to Margaret and her parents are cleverly interlaced throughout: mirrors, for example, make an appearance on the first page (the girls are rowing on Mirror Lake, and Nico later remembers her mother’s instructions: “Don’t be anyone’s mirror”). The narrative interludes about her father’s book, too, especially the passages about the Millerites (a nineteenth-century millennialist Christian sect), make for a strong intellectual framework while effectively evoking our pitiful attempts to struggle with death. But the connection of these literary motifs to Nico is far more a result of the novelist’s smart narrative scaffold-building than the adolescent character’s passions. Nico has announced early on that she doesn’t believe in an afterlife.
Indeed, the one crucial aspect of this novel that doesn’t completely work is Nico’s voice: though Prose is a master of the brisk narrative, and though momentum builds, the language Nico uses to tell this story tends to be flat, her emotions summarized. “It hurt my feelings,” she says when Aaron winces at her questions about Margaret, and that kind of summing-up submerges her grief even more than trauma has submerged it. Her personality is utterly likable—but her language is often formal and stiff. Her frequent summaries of movie plots, for example, do not sound like a kid’s experience of film: “The couple telegraphed heroism, anxiety, weary sophistication.” We learn at the end of the novel that she is narrating this story from an adult perspective, but that does not diminish my own sense that Prose, despite the skillful way in which she can build tension, has tamed Nico’s language and hence her horrific sorrow.
American novelists have long loved the adolescent first-person narrator (how could they not, after Huckleberry Finn?), and I think of a long list of contemporary writers—starting with Jonathan Lethem, Lewis Nordan, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz, and Joyce Carol Oates—who have created startling, affecting adolescent voices grappling with death. Prose chooses instead to iron the wrinkles out of Nico’s voice. The adult Nico gives us a brisk, controlled, intermittently moving, and always empathetic narrative, but this novel lacks the sustained intensity of language that would allow readers to accompany Nico on her descent into grief. Goldengrove’s smart, careful telling may appeal to those who like to hold grief at a distance, but for my own taste the book plays it too safe. It fails to pay death its due.
Related: Tanya Avakian reviews Francine Prose's A Changed Man