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GoldengroveReview - Goldengrove
A Novel
by Francine Prose
Harper, 2008
Review by Sue Bond
May 12th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 20)

The title Goldengrove comes from the poem 'Spring and Fall: To a Young Child' by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In this poem, a young girl called Margaret is upset over the falling of the beautiful yellow leaves in autumn. The narrator acknowledges her grief, but expands it by saying 'it is Margaret you mourn for', reminding her, and the reader, of the original 'Fall' of humankind in Genesis, and of their own eventual death.

  Francine Prose's novel begins with a teenage girl named Margaret drowning in the lake by her house. Her thirteen year old sister, Nico, is the last person to see her alive. Margaret's parents, Henry and Daisy, are so completely derailed by her death that Nico eventually finds herself looking out for them more than they do for her.

  Henry owns a bookstore called Goldengrove, and their daughter was in fact named after the girl in the Hopkins poem. While Daisy takes stupefying prescription drugs to dull her pain (both physical and emotional), Henry retreats to the writing of his book about how different peoples imagine the end of the world. As Nico comments, he 'must have believed that work could bridge the gap between the dark now and the slightly brighter future'.

  Margaret had a boyfriend, Aaron, and he and Nico start spending time together. It is Aaron's actions in trying to cope with Margaret's death that lead Nico into dangerous territory.

  Prose's portrayal of the grief of a family is sensitive and enlightening. I was convinced she knew what she was talking about. For example, Nico says of her mother's sorrow '[k]nowing that my mother missed her too only made me feel more alone. Why couldn't she help me first and do her own suffering later?', a reflection of her own adolescent need for comfort and succor, and her as yet only partly developed sense of understanding about the human heart, and a parent's despair on the death of a child. She is dismayed when her mother speaks of her own dead parents because 'it made me realize that missing someone could last an entire lifetime'. She finds the sympathy of others almost unbearable, highlighting the personal nature of grieving: 'People wanted to believe that their suffering had a purpose, if only so that they could offer me the distilled wisdom of their experience.'

  In a moving early scene, Nico goes into her sister's room for the first time since her death, and puts on her Hawaiian shirt. She sees Margaret, who drowned in Mirror Lake, in the glass mirror of her bedroom, reincarnated: Nico's own resemblance to her sister combined with an intense desire to see her again. 

  Prose describes the characters' ways of coping extremely effectively, in fluid and affecting language. Grief is almost a separate character, large and sorry and unavoidable, to be endured, shouted at, fought against, surrendered to. It does not go away completely: 'Time passed; the monster aged and lost some, but not all, of its power to ambush and wound me.'

  The last chapter contains some beautiful writing, but I am not convinced it was necessary to go into the future as Prose has done. Despite some awkwardness in the resolution of the story, this is a novel I highly recommend for its moving and perceptive portrayal of grief.

© 2009 Sue Bond

Sue Bond has degrees in medicine and literature and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. She reviews for online and print publications. She lives in Queensland, Australia 


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