I didn't set out to read Francine Prose's Goldengrove this week. And the IFOA's kind of snuck up on me. A number of our authors are here to do readings and we've tried to organize On the Fly videos for them. Emma, Francine Prose's publicist, gave me a copy of the book so I could come up with a couple of questions for her author video and, as well, because I'm going to see if the author has time to do a quick email interview for Savvy Reader. To make a longish (and somewhat boring) story shorter, I read the first few pages of Goldengrove and couldn't stop.
Before you read any further, if you have any inclination towards reading Goldengrove, be warned there may be spoilers in my review.
Nico and her older sister, Margaret, live in upstate New York on the idyllic Mirror Lake. Their mother writes liner music for classical CDs and their father owns and runs a bookstore called Goldengrove after "Spring and Fall," the Hopkins poem. On a lazy, gorgeous day before summer truly begins, one of those days where you enjoy all the promise of the season after the slush of spring has finally cleared up entirely, the two sisters float on a rowboat on the lake. Wearing their bathing suits to get a jump on their tans (Margaret) they have one of those shorthand sibling conversations that the skilled Prose uses to set up the entire family dynamic.
"This is heaven," Margaret says. She's dreamy: gorgeous, full of promise, a superstar singer in the process with an equally gorgeous painter of a boyfriend named Aaron. Nico, the book's protagonist replies, "Don't you ever worry about the polar ice caps melting?" She's a precocious thirteen-year-old who loves science and gets straight As. The two float around the lake until Margaret has had enough, maybe of her little sister nagging her about her smoking, maybe to be dramatic (she loves old movies; the melodrama of black and white), and jumps into the lake. Nico closes her eyes and falls asleep. When she wakes, her sister is nowhere to be found, her mother's piano music drifts over the lake as Nico pulls herself back to shore. Only they don't find Margaret until much later -- her heart condition more serious than anyone thought becomes the cause of her sudden death.
The sudden shock of the magnitude of the tragedy propels the entire family into a summer they'll never forget and their grief manifests itself in each in different ways. An endemic loss of appetite. An inability to continue with everyday activities. The closed door of Margaret's room. The hot, insufferable summer, their creaking train car of a house, and the slow ruination of Mirror Lake as a result of algae all become metaphors for how Nico and her parents cope with their loss. But it's not until Nico begins a strange friendship with Aaron, her sister's boyfriend, that the implications of how grief can truly change a person becomes evident. Nico and Aaron start off being a comfort to one another. They take drives. They talk about Margaret. They do things the two used to do together. Only Nico's not her sister, she's four years younger and Aaron pulls her further and further away from herself, into someone she doesn't recognize. Nico's desire at once to be more like Margaret feels right in a way, maybe it's a necessary stage she needs to go through to deal with her death, or maybe it's just the only way she knows how to cope, but it's not something that can sustain her, and as she realizes more and more of what's happening, her body, her mind, finds its way back to itself.
Last night at the IFOA, Francine Prose prefaced her reading by telling the audience that many of the reviews she's read about Goldengrove take note with the fact that "it's not a Francine Prose novel." Some postulate that she's written it "just to sell books" (whatever that means). As I've only ever read Goldengrove, I can't really compare it to any of her other books. I can only say that I was utterly captivated by Nico's voice, by her pain, by her experiences, by her loss. Prose read from the book's first section, as I sort of guessed that she would, to go any further in the story might be to spoil it in ways that would stop the reader from taking that journey from Nico. The months after the loss of someone so important to someone so young change your life forever. Prose captures her voice so very well that Nico's grief becomes almost exquisite in a way (but never precious, that's something different entirely). It's sharp and painful and has depths that need to be explored before one can come out the other end.
This morning while lying in bed coughing up a lung and cursing my headache, I kept thinking about why I enjoyed the novel so much. One reason, of course, is because I can completely identify with Nico, in how she coped with the tragedy, in her strange behavior, her odd relationship with Aaron. Beyond the more personal reasons for liking the book, I admired Prose's ability to capture the voice of the character in such profound ways. You're never pulled out of the story. You never feel as though the author is using the situation to prove a point (read: American Pastoral). You're never frustrated with the mistakes Nico makes beyond you're heart aching just a little for what she's going through.
Prose was a definite highlight of last night's readings. The other readers were enjoyable too, especially Emma Donoghue, whom I also enjoy, and Joan Barfoot, whom I've never read but thought she did a great job. The only reader that didn't really catch me was Anita Shreve. Her latest novel feels too overwrought and movie-of-the-week for me. Regardless, it was a whirlwind two days with Goldengrove, and I'd highly recommend the novel.