When I first saw the title of Francine Prose's newest work of fiction, my mind hearkened back to the title of one of the best (in my opinion) young adult novels ever, GOLDENGROVE, by Jill Paton Walsh, originally published in 1972. It turns out that Prose's book bears only a passing resemblance to Paton Walsh's; however, the two, both inspired by lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins's evocative poem, "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child," share an elegiac tone and a lyrical sensitivity to language, relationship and place.
Thirteen-year-old Nico (named after the doomed Velvet Underground singer/songwriter) has always idolized her older sister Margaret (named after the grieving heroine of Hopkins's poem). Margaret is practically a singer whose rendition of "My Funny Valentine" transfixes the audience at their school's Senior Show and whose beauty wins the heart of promising artist Aaron. The summer before Margaret is to leave for college, Nico, who has tagged along to the ice cream store with Margaret and Aaron and served as their alibi while the two have sex, is determined not to let Margaret just slip away: "This summer, I planned to read, watch movies, go swimming with Margaret, maybe catch a fish or two that Dad could cook for dinner, and not waste one precious minute before she left me alone with our parents."
But slip away is exactly what Margaret does. Margaret, who has recently been diagnosed with a congenital heart defect, never resurfaces after one of those summer swims. Nico's entire family reels from the death of their vivacious, lovely Margaret. Her arthritic mother retreats from her music and into a haze of prescription pain pills. Her father, a handsome bookstore owner, finds a solace of sorts in researching and writing a book about eschatology.
As for Nico, paralyzed by grief and soon isolated from friends and family alike, she turns to the one person who truly seems to understand what she's going through: Aaron, Margaret's boyfriend. At first, the two form a sort of support group, encouraging each other to do the kinds of things --- eating pistachio ice cream, watching old movies --- that remind them so forcefully, and painfully, of Margaret. But soon, the two of them are involved in a secret and increasingly disturbing relationship that threatens to cripple Nico even more than Margaret's death already has.
Francine Prose, in addition to being a gifted short story writer and novelist, is also one of our leading literary critics, and her understanding of cultural motifs, from classic film to torch songs, informs the novel's theme and enhances its thoughtfulness. In addition, Nico's father's exploration of religious end-time scenarios, as well as Nico's own fixation on global warming and various scientific worst-case scenarios, remind readers that every personal grief is a profound loss --- the end of the world on a personal scale.
That's not to say that the book is entirely cerebral, however. What will keep GOLDENGROVE in readers' minds long after the novel's surprisingly affirming ending is its honest, albeit painful, portrayal of grief, of the ways in which it manifests itself in strange, irrational, sometimes twisted ways, and how one person's life --- no matter how brief --- can influence the lives of countless others in often unimaginable ways.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 22, 2011