Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Nico, the thoughtful narrator of  Francine Prose’s novel Goldengrove, is 13 when her beautiful, talented 17-year-old sister, Margaret, drowns in the lake behind their parents’ home. Still chubby, worshipful, and unsure of herself when Margaret takes what turns out to be her final plunge into that peaceful lake, Nico must deal not only with the grief of losing her role model, but also the usual adolescent struggles of growing up—both physically and mentally—and finding an identity. Her parents, naturally, are no help as they each resort to their own methods of coping and retreating from the world. Thus, Nico must navigate this unsure time with very little guidance.

With each passing day (during which she barely eats), Nico finds that she is leaner and taller—that is, that she looks more like Margaret. Though initially a source of embarrassment, this similarity in appearance soon feels like a special bond, a way to keep Margaret close. It also gains the attention of Margaret’s boyfriend, Aaron, an artist who has always been described as “having a screw loose.” Nico and Aaron’s shared grief leads the two to find solace in each other, even if their “friendship” isn’t quite friendship at all, and their encounters (during which she wears Margaret’s clothes) verge on a Vertigo level of inappropriateness. The main concern becomes whether Nico can emerge from her dead sister’s shadow, whether she can develop an identity all her own, whether she can resurface when Margaret could not.

I felt as if I, and not Margaret, was the one who had disappeared, or as if I’d become a petri dish in which my sister was growing. There were days when I wanted to say, “I’m the living sister.”

Prose’s elegant writing elevates what could be a standard tearjerker into an emotionally astute meditation on both grief and maturation. The author is wise enough to allow Nico a childish naïveté while still endowing her with impressive awareness. Furthermore, she understands the grieving process, which Nico, as well as her parents, must go through in order to have any clarity on their situation. She creates an almost stifling atmosphere of grief, which—though at times difficult to handle—is effective. Though the novel itself is fairly plot-thin (and understandably so), it boasts impressive details that make it all the more fascinating and real. Nico’s father, for example, develops an obsession with a 19th century doomsday group called the Millerites, who gathered on a nearby hilltop to be raptured (and, it goes without saying, were greatly disappointed); Nico’s mother begins pursuing a love affair with pills, which are guiltily prescribed by the family doctor who failed to detect the danger of Margaret’s heart condition. Nico’s unhealthy relationship with Aaron, which begins to resemble the old movies that Margaret was so fond of, is only one of many misguided transferences, addictions that, if left unchecked, will have dire consequences.

Fortunately, Prose is interested not only in the descent, but also in the reemergence. She allows the family their time for grief, but also emphasizes their need—and capacity—for recovery. As the summer winds down (indeed almost all of this book takes place during the summer immediately after Margaret’s springtime death), the family slowly begins to accept the reality of a world without Margaret. They reassemble their fragmented lives, and take comfort in one another rather than in external distractions. Slowly, they earn perspective, seeing the world not through an underwater haze but for what it really is.

I came to understand that Margaret’s death was an entity, separate from Margaret. My sister would always love me. But her death was a monster that would rip me apart, if it could. Time passed; the monster aged and lost some, but not all, of its power to ambush and wound me.

Goldengrove is a sad, contemplative book, apt to promote a sad, contemplative mood, but it is worth the while of many different types of readers. For as moody and melancholy as it can feel, it is also a credible coming-of-age story. Nico’s clear, sensitive voice rises above the depressing subject matter to craft a narrative that is both enjoyable and thought-provoking.

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