September 11, 2008 Books of The Times

An Aura of Grief Surrounds a Stunned Family

By JANET MASLIN

GOLDENGROVE

By Francine Prose

275 pages. Harper. $24.95.

Francine Prose’s novel “Goldengrove” starts out sounding dangerously like one of those books about that summer. You know the drill: An innocently happy family is shattered by an abrupt accident, disease, divorce, suicide, kidnapping, affair or other cosmic game changer. Afterward nothing about that family will ever be the same. There are many, many books that follow this formula. Some are classics. Most sound depressing, like the work of a maudlin author writing in his or her sleep.

“Goldengrove” begins with two sisters, a lake and a rowboat. Its opening pages include such red-flag phrases as “that time,” “that first Sunday in May,” “ ‘This is heaven’ ” and “Our years of bad luck began.” Sure enough, this story’s oars are steering toward tragedy. The older sibling dives into the lake and dies. The younger one is left to narrate “Goldengrove” by telling a kid-sister coming-of-age tale.

Narrators of such stories tend to be sensitive. But Ms. Prose is perceptive, and that’s a very different thing. Her modest-sounding book turns out to be beautifully wrought. And it blossoms into a smart, gimlet-eyed account of what 13-year-old Nico sees happening around her after the loss of the more alluring, glamorous and manipulative Margaret. Nico’s experience goes well beyond the realms of adolescence and family dynamics and yields an unexpectedly rich, tart, eye-opening sense of Nico’s world.

Once it becomes apparent where “Goldengrove” is headed, even those opening pages reward close scrutiny. Ms. Prose uses them to anchor her book firmly in this one family’s particular world. “Both our parents were the rogue only children of starchy New England families,” Nico explains. And the parents were hapless, which is how they wound up living a post-hippie life in what was once Nico’s maternal grandparents’ summer place in the Berkshires.

About the Puritan family portraits on a bathroom wall, Nico says sharply, “Mom thought it was funny to hang them there, but the glowering dead men and women had delayed my toilet training until Dad figured it out and briefly turned their faces to the wall.”

Goldengrove is the name not only of the bookstore run by Nico’s father but also a reference to “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child,” the mournful Gerard Manley Hopkins poem for which Margaret was named. The source of the name is one of many things Nico discovers during the course of the novel.

That she herself was named for the Nico, who sang with the Velvet Underground (“Is that person dying?” she asks, upon hearing Nico’s junkie drone for the first time) also comes as news. The book does a clever job of illuminating its characters by invoking songs, films, books and paintings that help explicate them.

Much of “Goldengrove” has to do with Nico’s uneasy relationship with Aaron, Margaret’s boyfriend. Once Aaron seemed distant and mysterious to Nico — and objectionable to the girls’ parents, who called him vain and “squirrelly.” But after Margaret dies, apparently of a congenital heart ailment, Aaron turns his attention to the younger girl.

In a less interesting book romance would blossom. In this one Nico isn’t sure whether to tempt Aaron or flee from him, and Aaron isn’t sure what he wants either. Both need solace more than they need a flirtation.

As time goes by, Nico does her best to resemble Margaret. And Aaron is eager to find similarities. Only when an older mentor exposes Nico to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” does Nico understand how and why Aaron is trying to transform her. When this same friend shows Nico “Casablanca,” which the girl briefly mistakes for “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Nico suddenly grasps something about stoicism and survival. With her fresh, unfiltered eyes, she also views Humphrey Bogart’s Rick as “the hard-boiled egg with the warm liquid yolk.”

Nico also grows prickly about the aura of grief and of how inescapably it surrounds her. She hates the sympathy of outsiders. She sees them draping their own losses over hers. Family friends, like the one whom Margaret regarded as “an example of how, given enough vanity and money, you could make your face look like a junior-high sewing project,” can’t hide their self-serving motives from this bright and caustic girl. She bristles at how her father’s customers ask him how he’s holding up and then start sniffling before he can reply.

Though “Goldengrove” is not especially eventful, Ms. Prose gives its characters much internal drama. Nico’s father has become fascinated with end-of-the-world stories and draws Nico into research about the biblical Rapture. Her mother drifts into druggy isolation. Aaron channels his darker side into painting, and his work both tantalizes Nico and scares her.

Throughout it all Margaret hovers as a ghostly presence, alive in Nico’s imagination. The French idea of l’esprit d’escalier, or the spirit of the staircase, as a reminder of things left unsaid, was one of the playful and poetic confidences that these sisters once shared.

“Goldengrove” is one of Ms. Prose’s gentler books — far more so than the bitingly satirical “A Changed Man.” But it’s not a sentimental one. It draws the reader into and then out of “that hushed and watery border zone where we live alongside the dead,” and it does this with mostly effortless narrative verve. And it scorns the bathos of its genre, so it does not become an invitation to wallow in suffering. It prefers the comforts of strength, growth and forward motion.

The City University of New York