Francine Prose’s Goldengrove begins with an imminent sense of foreboding: “One thing happened, then everything else, like a domino falling and setting off a collapse.” Add some ominous cultural references (a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem; later, Hitchcock’s Vertigo), and the reader is primed for the other shoe to drop. And drop it does. This tale is about picking up the pieces.
Prose’s protagonist is Nico, a flailing teen in awe of her charming older sister, Margaret. Near-clichéd perfection, Margaret is beautiful, poised, smart and blessed with a mellifluous voice, but her enchanting presence is literally short-lived. When Margaret dies suddenly, Nico and her family are left, shocked and fractured.
Nico faces the unbearable aftermath in almost complete isolation. Her parents are mired in grief, and others’ false comforts feel vacant and trite. Friendless and lonely, Nico starts reminiscing regularly with Aaron, her sister’s boyfriend. Their sense of mutual loss and comfort veers into disturbing territory, as Aaron fails to differentiate between the sisters. Worse, Nico fails as well.
Indeed, this story is as much about sibling relationships as it is about mourning. The complicated foundation of sibling compare/contrast does not end in Margaret’s physical absence; she remains a phantom goddess, a point of comparison on all things. Nico’s struggle to establish her individuality illustrates the complexity of forging identity in the shadow of those we admire.
Prose is laudably confrontational about difficult subjects, and she deftly shows how our ideal selves duel with the limitations of the people we realistically are. But ultimately, there is a threshold for teen-grappling-with-identity-issues. Nico, while admirably resilient given her circumstances, has such a wobbly sense of self that it overwhelms her strengths. This novel would probably fare better in the young adult section. Even though we’re rooting for Nico to find herself, her constant uncertainty is a hindrance to engaging an adult reader.