Grief — And Growing Up — In 'Goldengrove' When her sister drowns, 13-year-old Nico must navigate grief and growing up at the same time. Francine Prose's Goldengrove captures the confusion of adolescence tenderly and without condescension.
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Grief — And Growing Up — In 'Goldengrove'

By Francine Prose
Hardcover, 275 pages
Harper Collins
List price: $24.95

Francine Prose's previous works include A Changed Man and Blue Angel. Stephanie Berger hide caption

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Stephanie Berger

Everyone knows how confounding it is to turn 13; it's no wonder it's a famously unlucky number. There's really no way to bust out of childhood's tender cocoon without a measure of inelegance. In Goldengrove, Francine Prose manages to remember the feelings of that awkward stage and recreate them — tenderly and without condescension — for readers who've left their teens far behind them.

Nico, the 13-year-old narrator of Goldengrove, has a particularly thorny challenge: She has to navigate puberty and grief at the same time. In the first 20 pages, her beloved older sister Margaret drowns while swimming in the family lake. Over the summer after her death, everyone — Nico, her mother and father, family friend Elaine and Aaron, the boyfriend Margaret left behind — must grow up and into what they will be without Margaret in their lives.

More than a few novels juxtapose adolescence with loss — sex and death make an oddly natural pair — and most of those resort to the pat "That's what I learned the summer I was 13" for their sweeping philosophical uplift. Goldengrove steers clear of the cliché with its emotionally articulate narrator; Nico has remarkably good judgment about her family and friends, even when she chooses not to exercise it.

It's cathartic to watch Nico's choices morph from those made in sorrow to those made in forgiveness. As the adults around her flounder and grieve, Nico metabolizes her sister's death — re-imagining her sister as a kind of protective presence, wearing Margaret's clothes, comforting Margaret's boyfriend. The way Nico internalizes her sister rather than her sorrow, is a reminder that growing up is more powerful than mourning. Ultimately it is Nico's tweenaged stage — and the inevitable rebirth that is part of puberty — that gives her the tools to move forward and care for herself.

Goldengrove is a departure from the biting irony of Prose's other novels — there's no satire here, just a mirror held up to the sorrow in ordinary lives. That's not to say that there aren't strains of humor in the book — it's to Prose's credit that the book never gets maudlin, and Nico is charming and witty, in spite of herself. It's a study of grief and growing-up, that, despite its light touch, has staying power.

Excerpt: 'Goldengrove'

By Francine Prose
Hardcover, 275 pages
Harper Collins
List price: $24.95

Chapter One

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.

That was how Margaret would have thought. My sister was the poet.

I was Miss One-Thing-After-the-Next. Which is how I remember what happened.

But that's not how it happened at all. One thing happened, then everything else, like a domino falling and setting off a collapse that snakes out toward the horizon and spills over into the future.

If all the clocks and calendars vanished, children would still know when Sunday came. They would still feel that suck of dead air, that hollow vacuum created when time slips behind a curtain, when the minutes quit their orderly tick and ooze away, one by one. Colors are muted, a jellylike haze hovers and blurs the landscape. The phone doesn't ring, and the rest of the world hides and conspires to pretend that everyone's baking cookies or watching the game on TV. Then Monday arrives, and the comforting racket starts up all over again.

Even before that Sunday, I was glad to see the day end. It wasn't that I liked school so much, but the weekends lasted forever. The loneliness, the hours to fill with books, homework, computer, watching old films with my sister, if she was in the mood. Silence, then the Sunday sounds of our house by the lake. My mother playing the piano, my dad's prehistoric Selectric.

That Sunday, that first Sunday in May, was so warm I couldn't help wondering: Was it simply a beautiful day, or a symptom of global warming? Even the trees looked uncomfortable, naked and embarrassed, as if they were all simultaneously having that dream in which you look down and realize you've forgotten to put on your clothes.

Two Cleopatras in our royal barge, my sister and I reclined and let our little rowboat drift out onto the lake. Margaret arched her shoulders, flung one arm over the side, and trailed her fingertips in the water. It was one of those actressy gestures she'd copied from the classic black-and-white movies to which she was addicted. She liked me to watch them with her, and we were allowed to stay up, because our mother said we would learn more from Some Like It Hot than from a year of school. It was often hard to tell what our mother meant, exactly, except that we learned to flutter our lashes and say, "What's a girl to do?" in breathy little-girl whispers.

One thing Margaret and I had in common was: we could do imitations. We knew whole scenes by heart, like the end of Flying Deuces, when Hardy is killed in a plane crash and then reincarnated as a horse with a black mustache and a bowler hat. Laurel's so happy to see him he throws his arms around Ollie—that is, the horse possessed by Ollie's grumpy spirit.

Sometimes Margaret would do a gesture or line and ask me what film it was from. Her silvery laughter was my prize for getting it right. The only rowboat scene I knew was the one in which Montgomery Clift pushes Shelley Winters into the water. And I was pretty certain that wasn't what Margaret was doing.

Margaret said, "This is heaven."

I wished I could have been like her instead of the kind of person who said, "Don't you ever worry about the polar ice caps melting?"

"Debbie Downer," said Margaret. "Give yourself a break. It's Sunday, Nico. Take a day off." Squinting, she aimed her smoke rings so that they encircled the sun like foggy auras.

Margaret had promised our parents she wouldn't smoke. Mom's parents and Dad's father had all died young of smoking-related causes. Both of our parents used to smoke. Their friends had started dying. The new weapon in the arsenal of Mom and Dad's War on Smoking was some bad news we'd gotten that fall: Margaret had a heart condition. A mild one, but I worried.

She'd fainted the first and last time Mom talked us into doing yoga with her. I still have a photo my father took that day on the lawn, of the three of us doing downward-facing dog or some other mortifying position that, our mother had convinced herself, was helping her arthritis. Margaret, Mom, and I are bent till our heads nearly touch the ground, like those snakes that, Margaret told me, bite their tails and roll after the children they swallow whole. Planted apart for balance, our legs take up most of the photo, downward-facing croquet hoops of descending sizes. What the picture doesn't show is that, seconds after it was taken, Margaret collapsed in a pile of leaves. At first we'd thought she was joking.

Our pediatrician, Dr. Viscott, ran some tests and said that Margaret should eat well, exercise, don't smoke. That stutter on her heart graph was something they'd keep their eye on.

Margaret knew she could smoke around me. Smoking was the least of the things she trusted me to keep secret.

From across the lake, we heard our mother practicing the spooky Chopin waltz that always made me think of ballroom dance music for ghosts. She kept making mistakes and starting over again. She'd wanted to be a pianist, she'd gone to music school, but she changed her plans when she met my dad and they ran off to be hippies. Margaret had found a snapshot of them picking soybeans on a commune in northern California. Long hair, overalls, bandannas, a Jesus beard on Dad.

Excerpted from Goldengrove by Francine Prose. Copyright © 2008 by Francine Prose. Excerpted by permission of Harper Collins. All rights reserved.