Book talk: “Goldengrove,” by Francine Prose – TLC Book Tour

Disclosures: I was provided with a paperback copy of this novel for review by the publisher, via TLC Book Tours.  *The purchasing link at the end of the review goes through my Amazon Affiliates account.

Goldengrove: A Novel
Francine Prose
Harper Perennial, 2009 (Paperback) (ISBN 0060560029 / 9780060560027)
Fiction, 288 pages

First sentence: “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.”

Book description:  At the center of Francine Prose’s profoundly moving new novel is a young girl facing the consequences of sudden loss after the death of her sister. As her parents drift toward their own risky consolations, thirteen-year-old Nico is left alone to grope toward understanding and clarity, falling into a seductive, dangerous relationship with her sister’s enigmatic boyfriend.
Over one haunted summer, Nico must face that life-changing moment when children realize their parents can no longer help them. She learns about the power of art, of time and place, the mystery of loss and recovery. But for all the darkness at the novel’s heart, the narrative itself is radiant with the lightness of summer and charged by the restless sexual tension of teenage life.
Comments: 13-year-old Nico was literally the last person to see her older sister Margaret alive. Margaret was a gifted singer and actress about to graduate from high school, and the girls were spending a lazy Sunday afternoon out on the lake in their family’s rowboat. Margaret decided to dive from the boat into the lake and swim to shore, but she  never came back up.

The shock of Margaret’s sudden loss pushes the remaining members of the family in separate directions, rather than pulling them closer together. While her mother seeks to escape with prescription drugs and her father retreats to his bookstore, Goldengrove, and the book he’s been writing for years, Nico seeks to connect with her sister’s spirit; that leads her to the company of Margaret’s artist boyfriend Aaron, who may be even more haunted than Nico is.

Francine Prose writes Goldengrove in Nico’s voice, which keeps the focus squarely on her, and I thought that was a particularly appropriate narrative choice. Nico is 13, a particularly self-focused age; parents start to recede in importance, peers matter more, and everything is filtered through self-reference. The parental characters in Goldengrove seemed underdeveloped to me, but that also seemed correct; they’ve both pulled back in response to their elder child’s death, while at the same time, Nico has reached an age where she’s naturally beginning to grow in her own direction, and her own development matters more to her than anyone else’s. I don’t mean that to sound negative; it’s a normal part of adolescence, and the crisis that Nico and her family are experiencing just makes it more pronounced. There is growth and development over the course of the summer and the story – for both Nico and her parents –  and while I thought the ending was perhaps a little too neat, it was credible. Sometimes “moving on” happens so gradually that we don’t realize we’ve done it until some time later, but sometimes it takes a conscious decision.

While reading Goldengrove, I kept returning to a recent discussion of YA literature. While this has been published and marketed as an adult novel, I think one could make a convincing case for it as young-adult literature. It’s thoughtful and beautifully written, and while its themes of  grief, loss and developing maturity are serious ones, they’re not inappropriate for older high-school students. But if the distinguishing characteristic of YA is “a teenage protagonist,” both its narrator and its  perspective would seem to make this novel fit within that genre.

Rating: 3.75/5
This is the final stop on the TLC Book Tour for Goldengrove. Previous stops were:
Tuesday, September 22nd: Book Magic
Wednesday, September 23rd: Eclectic Book Lover
Thursday, September 24th: The Bluestocking Society
Tuesday, September 29th: Dolce Bellezza
Thursday, October 1st: A Sea of Books
Monday, October 5th: A High and Hidden Place
Tuesday, October 6th: Books on the Brain
Wednesday, October 7th: S. Krishna’s Books
Thursday, October 8th : Book Chatter and Other Stuff
Tuesday, October 13th: Caribousmom
Wednesday, October 14th: Literate Housewife

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  1. The only issue I had with this one is that I kept waiting for some dark secret to be revealed about Aaron. The author touched on something and then sort of dropped it.

  2. Florinda, I loved how you really delved into Nico in this review! I feel like I understand more of the book, but you didn't give away any spoilers. I love that!

    Thanks for being on this tour!

  3. TexasRed – It turned out to be not quite what I expected, but it was well done.

    Amy – I think it could be cross-marketed as YA if the publisher and author wanted to go that route, but for an older teen audience.

    Ti – Yeah, I got that vibe too, but I don't think we really did get what was behind the whole "he has a screw loose" thing.

    Kathy (Bermudaonion) – I've only read one of her other books so far, the novel A Changed Man. I thought it was good, but very different from Goldengrove.

    Trish – Thanks! I read most of the other reviews on the tour, and I think I did find a different angle on the book. And I always try to be spoiler-free :-).

  4. Prose is a gifted author; you were more patient with what I reacted to as her tearjerker attempts with this novel than I was. My favorite of hers IS marketed for young adults, the novel After.

  5. Jeanne – I remember that both you and Beth Kephart alluded to that, so I'll admit my guard was up a bit while I was reading the novel :-). Still, I think that I was convinced enough by the adolescent narrative voice that I didn't feel manipulated.

    I'm not familiar with After – I'll have to look out for that one!

  6. It's interesting what you say about Nico's parents. I agree with you on that. I think it's especially true of Nico's mother. How much of that can be tied back to Nico? I wonder how my daughters would view me at 13? What an interesting topic. Great review!

  7. Jennifer (Literate Housewife) – I agree with you about Nico's mother; her dad didn't quite react the same way, but I really got a sense that both of them were very much filtered through a 13-year-old's perspective…and it was totally appropriate to the story.

  8. Thank you for the great review, Florinda. I have been hearing good things about this one. Francine Prose is one of those authors that I haven't tried because she intimidates me a bit. I'm not sure why and have no reason for feeling that way.

  9. Wendy (Literary Feline) – I get that. She's written a lot of nonfiction in addition to her novels, and I think I was a bit intimidated by her myself until I read A Changed Man. She's one of those authors who doesn't seem to have a fixed niche, which I like.