Francine Prose
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Buy *Goldengrove* by Francine Prose online

Francine Prose
288 pages
September 2008
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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In this deeply reflective novel, a young teenager narrates a tale of loss as she silently mourns the death of her older sister. It’s almost as if there is no explanation for why Margaret, the stunningly beautiful older sister of Nico, suddenly drowns one afternoon while swimming home in the glassy and motionless Mirror Lake in upstate New York. Although Margaret did have heart problems and she clandestinely had the occasional smoke, the accident still seems to simply occur, like a domino that silently falls and collapses.

Almost overnight, Nico and her parents, Henry and Daisy, are thrust into a maelstrom of denial and grief that shatters their previously calm and transparent existence. While the search for Margaret‘s body continues, divers dragging the lake day and night, Henry and Daisy hold Nico’s hands with steady, formidable pressure, unable to comprehend what has just happened.

Margaret has left behind a formidable reputation. Considered the “it girl” of the area, Margaret was adored by those around her and rumored to have been having sex with Aaron, her handsome new boyfriend. A budding poet with ambitions to become a sexy saloon singer, she was also a natural romantic with a mercurial and ethereal quality, reflected in her love of everything old - films, jazz songs, vintage postcards, and clothes. Nico loved, her sister and the two of them fit together so perfectly. Although Margaret was once the idol of her life, Nico could never have anticipated such an abrupt estrangement.

Thinking back to their early days with Margaret, Nico, Henry and Daisy are at a loss with how to deal with the state of her death. Henry seeks comfort in Goldengrove, his bookstore, spending his evenings and Sundays working on a book about how people in different cultures imagine the end of the world. Daisy is diagnosed with arthritis in her hands, which seems to get worse and worse as the weeks go by. Eventually she resorts to painkillers and Prozac, her life gradually blurring and thinning out around the edges.

Henry and Daisy become ever more distracted, wrapped in a span of grief that ebbs and flows around them with sneak attacks and unpredictable setbacks. Meanwhile, Nico seems to despise everyone for being alive. At Henry's invitation and glad to get out of the house, she goes to work at Goldengrove. There, in her own private kingdom, she gets a surprise invitation from Aaron to go for a ride and perhaps retrace some of the local hangouts he once shared with Margaret.

A handsome boy, Aaron is seemingly innocent and self-admiring, possessing a severe artistic bent. Naturally Nico is attracted him, but she cannot help being haunted by the fact that she would never be poetic and beautiful like Margaret and will probably never find a boy to call her “his funny valentine.” Suddenly, however, he who was once a relative stranger becomes a new and frightening friend. Obsessed with Margaret’s shirt, which he insists that Nico keep wearing, Aaron is burnished by exhaustion and sadness, a haunted and insomniac soul. A boy like this is always so much more attractive to Nico. Almost overnight, the friendship becomes dangerously intimate, fuelled by the ghost of Margaret hanging over them like a delicate, dark thread: “both of us who had loved Margaret easily formed a hopeless love triangle with the dead.”

A complex and self-aware girl, weighed down by her loneliness and her sadness, Nico becomes dangerously attracted to Aaron with unforeseen consequences for her and her parents. She’s vulnerable, but the events in the aftermath of Margaret’s death have given her a natural wisdom and a compassion for Henry and Daisy - and, surprisingly, for the plight of Aaron. Part of her journey is finding a way to overcome the tragedy of her sister while healing her fractured family and Aaron’s confused and shattered needs.

With her themes of fleeting youth, mortality, time, age, innocence and death, Francine Prose writes beautifully, encapsulating the feelings of those of us who might have been affected by a devastating and unexpected family loss. Nico clashes with Henry and Daisy in a sticky net that seems to trap them all. In the end, the message might be bleak, but it is also infused with great beauty and, surprisingly, the blank slate of possibilities. Margaret is gone, but over the course of the novel it finally becomes clear that Nico must wake up from the long-held fever dream where Margaret is always present and navigate herself and her parents towards the twin roads of healing and forgiveness.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2008

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