HarperCollins, $24.95, 288 pp.
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...