Francine Prose: Goldengrove (2008)


One sultry summer’s day, teenage Nico and her vivacious older sister Margaret take a boat out on the lake by their family home. But when Margaret dives in, and doesn’t resurface, Nico realizes with horror that her sister is lost to the watery depths for ever. While her parents drift toward their own risky consolations, Nico searches for solace and security in books, art, and – recklessly – in a fledgling relationship with Margaret’s boyfriend. Heartrending and intense, Goldengrove follows a girl on the cusp of adulthood during a summer when a death changes her life for ever.

Reading Francine Prose’s novel Goldengrove felt at times like holding the clothes and belongings of a dead person in my hands. While I read it, and for a long while after I finished it, I felt as if I was grieving. It’s a really sad novel but at the same time it’s a very beautiful novel. It also reminded me of the series Six Feet Under. There is something very similar in the mood and the characters. Although I absolutely loved this novel I could imagine it isn’t for everybody.

There is an epitaph at the beginning of the novel, a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

To a young child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

I didn’t know this poem before but now it haunts me.  It actually woke me in the middle of the nigh; it had burned itself into my memory. I felt as if I was wrapped in the poem and the book and as if I had just lost someone too. The poem is important in many ways. Margaret and Nico’s parents are creative people. Her mother is a musician, her father owns a bookshop that he has called Goldengrove and he is a writer as well. They chose to name their first child Margaret and it seems so fitting as Margaret is the creative one, the singer, while little Nico is the scientist of the family.

The first few sentences of the novel are as haunting as the poem and pull you right into the story:

We lived on the shore of mirror lake, and for many years our lives were as calm and transparent as its waters. Our old house followed the curve of the bank, in segments, like a train, each room and screened porch added on, one by one, decade by decade.

When I think of that time, I picture the four of us wading in the shallows, admiring our reflections in the glassy, motionless lake. Then something — a pebble, a raindrop — breaks the surface and shatters the mirror. A ripple reaches the distant bank. Our years of bad luck begin.

One afternoon in summer, Margaret, Nico’s older sister, drowns in the lake. The two girls spent the afternoon in a boat and Margaret swims back while Nico brings the boat in. Margaret never returns. Losing someone is painful but losing someone like Margaret is incredibly tragic. This was such a fascinating young woman. The lives of those around her literally stop after her death. She was charismatic, authentic, original and highly creative, an accomplished singer who could move people to tears. After her death there is nothing that doesn’t remind little Nico, her parents, or Aaron, Margaret’s boyfriend, of her.

Each of the four people Margaret leaves behind, mourns in another way. Nico dreams of her sister at night and believes her ghost tries to contact her. Attracted by the fascinating but somewhat loony Aaron, she spends long afternoons with him not realizing that they have formed an unhealthy relationship. Aaron cannot get over Margaret’s death and driven by an urge to get her back, he attempts to transform the young Nico into her older sister. Both parents have a hard time to cope as well, each seeking another form of consolation.

The four of them stumble through this summer, mourning and trying to make sense of something that makes no sense.

The end of the novel is very interesting and ambiguous.

I have read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer and her novella Guided Tours of Hell. They both impressed me, still I didn’t expect such a beautifully morbid book. Since I was so impressed by what she wrote about style in her nonfiction book, I did pay special attention to her writing and although I was really immersed in this novel I had to admit it is far from flawless. There were even two or three cringe-inducing passages.

Despite its flaws, Goldengrove is an emotionally intense and haunting novel. Should it manage to touch you it will linger for a long time after you finished it.

19 thoughts on “Francine Prose: Goldengrove (2008)

  1. This is one of my favorite poems, and now I sometimes listen to Natalie Merchant’s CD in which she set the poem to music. Hopkins is one of my favorite poets, I love his beautiful turns of phrase.

    Not sure about the novel, though. I’m not in the need of catharsis right now, and the book sounds like a cathartic experience. Maybe I’ll check on it during the Fall when the “unleaving” begins.

    • It’s a wonderful poem, I need to read more of him. I was thinking it would make great lyrics. I rather expected someone like Antony and the Johnsons to use it (Do you know his version of Poe’ The Lake?). I love Natalie Merchant’s CDs too. here is one that I don’t know very well. Maybe it is on it, I need to find out.
      I thought it was a summer book but the mood goes well with autumn too. Cathartic is not a bad word for it actually.

  2. Reading the blurb I first thought Nico was a boy. (French reflex I guess)

    It seems terribly sad and it reminds me of Ordinary People by Judith Guest. It was made into a film by Robert Redford. I remember it was upsetting.

      • You’re right about “Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas”.

        I thought of Ordinary People because of the story : it’s about two brothers who go sailing on a lake. There’s a tempest and the eldest dies. The youngest and the parents need to recover from that death. I read this when I was a teenager and I still remember it.

        • I read the description of Ordinary people and there is a similarity but I think the mood is different. Goldengrove has a very floating mellow mood. Ordinary people sounds harsher. But that is only the impression I got from the blurb.

  3. Great review, Caroline. And what a beautiful poem. I did not realize Six Feet Under was shown over there. It has marvelous writing and acting, but is creepy too. I could not watch the last season because I thought it got too bizarre.

    • Thanks, Mrs Pearl. Yes, it was shown late at night, too late for me, in the end I bought the whole series. I’m not a series person but I will rewatch Six Feet Under. The initial series are great but at the same time it is worth watching all of it as it has a proper ending and feels like you have watched one long movie. The poem is astonishing, isn’t it?.

  4. I read this author’s novel Blue Angel, a novel about a writing professor who gets into trouble with one of his students. It was one of my favourite novels for whichever year I read it, but strangely was disliked by several people I was sure would like it.

    Since Blue Angel, I’ve kept my eye on Prose but haven’t been tempted for a second time.

    • Sometimes when you like an author you can just pick the next book and be sure you will like the next one as well. I have a feeling Francine Prose isn’t that kind of author. I’m really not sure you would like Goldengrove. Guided Tours of Hell and Goldengrove are as different as can be. I’ll have a look at Blue Angel.

  5. I hated Goldengrove. It’s the umpteenth book I’ve read with the setting of the death of the glamorous older sister and then the quieter younger sister fitting herself into that life (boyfriend included). It made me cringe. Sure, it’s got some beautiful passages, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that Prose can’t write a single realistic teenager, nor the fact that the story completely lacks originality.

    I know a lot of readers loved the book and I respect that, but I couldn’t enjoy what felt to me like a floating, empty box that, granted, had some lovely, “emotional” writing. It just wasn’t right for me…

    • I’m not surprised about your reaction at all and I can’t really contradict you but I personally loved the mood. I was actually tempted to write at one point that I wasn’t able to say whether it is a good novel as I was just carried away by the mood. I liked it on a purely emotional level and didn’t think it was intellectually challenging and, like I mentioned, I found a few instances cringe-inducing too.
      I haven’t read any other books with the older sister dying or cannot remember right now.I didn’t think the teenagers were not realistic. I just didn’t think Aaron as unhealthy as she wanted to make him appear. I’m not sure 13 year old teenagers are as “innocent” as she wanted Nico to be. It is certainly a flawed book but it did move me.

  6. I have this to read and am looking forward to it after your beautiful review. I read Blue Angel by Prose and sort of liked it. The thing was, it seemed to me the quintessence of the campus/writing group novel, as if she’d taken all available novels in that area and distilled them into hers. So I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it. It may be that Goldengrove is the distillation of all narratives about grief. Not that that would make it uninteresting to read, of course.

    • I am looking forward to your review. I’m really curious whether you will like it or not. Reading what you just wrote about Blue Angel makes it sound a bit artificial. I didn’t think Goldengrove was artificial at all. I like books about loss and grief. I find it tiring that death is such a taboo in our society and think Prose’s book shows well how devastating loss can be and that it isn’t always possible to go back to the same life after you have lost someone.

  7. I have this and look forward to reading it, but like Jenclair I think I need to be in the right mood, and reading about grieving right now isn’t quite what I need. Still, I would like to read something by Francine Prose and have looked at her Reading Like a Writer with much curiosity!

    • Reading like a writer is a fantstic book. And will make your TBR pile grow! Dangerous… I liked (on a purely emotinal level) Goldengrove better than Guided Tours of Hell but the latter one is fascinating. Maybe it does require the right moment to read it, yes.

  8. Pingback: Best and Worst Books 2011 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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