by Francine Prose (2008)
Harper Perennial (2009)
275 pp

A few years back I read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. In it I found evidence that Prose was an excellent reader, but for some reason I didn’t go further and test out whether she was also an excellent writer. I’m not sure why but, despite her prolific and relatively acclaimed output, her name rarely comes up when I’m talking with people about books — in fact, I’m not sure it ever has. I know this says much more about whom I discuss books with than about Prose and the reception of her books; she is an established writer, after all. However, I also don’t recall seeing her name come up on many blogs. I became interested in Goldengrove (2008), however, when I saw a few places where it was considered (derisively, I should add) to be a young adult book — a book that is great for those lower beings, but hardly worth the time of a serious reader.

Interestingly, there was little substantive criticism backing up the claim that this was a YA novel, as if that classification alone suggests the book’s perceived faults. Predictable? Unsophisticated? Sentimental? Clichéd? I don’t think these labels apply to Goldengrove. Furthermore, the more I put my head out there, the more I realize that these labels do not apply to YA as a category. I admit I have my own prejudices against what many (most) young adults read and against those authors who do little more than change characters’ names (or species) in a marketable formula. Of course, I have the exact same prejudices against what many (most) adults read and against those authors who do little more than change characters’ names (or psychoses) in a marketable formula. My wife has helped me to see what I always knew: there are brilliant writers writing for young adults who are just as skilled, who produce books that are just as complicated and subtle and provoking as the brilliant writers writing for adults. To suggest that YA is lesser is to do these important writers a grave disservice — which is exactly what’s happening. Admittedly, there’s a stylistic and thematic difference between YA literature and adult literature, but the idea that “if this book were written for teens I’d consider it a masterpiece, but if it is for adults it’s a major disappointment” doesn’t work for me. Good writing is good writing — to suggest a YA novel is lesser suggests that there are no intelligent young adults and that there are no YA writers who write for that crowd. It shouldn’t be reduced to “milk for babes.”

All of that is a tangent — Goldengrove is a highly self-consciously crafted novel; that is to say, Prose cleverly constructs a book whose substance as a book is as much the topic as is the narrated grief the characters suffer through — maybe it is the central topic. Adults, young and old, reading closely will find some fascinating play going on here.

Goldengrove‘s narrator is Nico, a thirteen-year-old girl. Perhaps that’s why some consider it YA. Or maybe it’s because the book is centralized around a summer of grief, familiar terrain in many books (good and bad) written for young adults. But this is not a book about coping with grief. Grief is present, and wonderfully — unsentimentally — rendered, but in Goldengrove grief is a vehicle to explore other ideas, ideas which seem to have flown by many readers, though I can’t help but think they are obvious. Then again — and I’m certainly a culprit here — when we read a book thinking we already know what it’s about, we often miss the points of departure in the narrative that will expand our experience.

“Goldengrove” comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child,” one of my favorite poems in my poetry reading days (I hope my ability to read and digest poetry will return to me). The word “grief” is used in that poem, but it is not necessarily a poem about “grieving” someone’s death — at least, not the way we commonly think of such grief. This book, however, is on the surface about grieving someone’s death. And admittedly, the first paragraph does seem to usher in a tone and setting that could be cliché:

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.

The “four of us” are Nico, her older sister Margaret, and their parents. Margaret, like the book, is named after the Hopkins poem. Margaret, who suffers some heart ailment, drowns in Mirror Lake in the first chapter, causing a summer of grief and emptiness for the surviving three (well, four — but we’ll get to the boyfriend in a minute). Goldengrove really could be a simplistic book about grief paying homage to a beloved poem. But there is another creature here.

Nico is named after the late German singer most famous, at least around my home, for her tenure with The Velvet Underground. So Nico, Margaret, and the book itself are named after something else. “Goldengrove” also happens to be the name of the father’s bookshop. So there’s something going on with the naming — or it could just be the way the author selects the names (I don’t believe that is the case). The lake is named Mirror Lake, and within the first few chapters we not only see several mirrors, but we have constant references to films that feature mirror-scenes: Persona, Ninotchka. Nico calls herself and Margaret the mimics. And now when Nico looks into the mirror she sees Margaret more and more each time. Something besides grief is going on in these pages — or these leaves of Goldengrove, if we want to bring another perspective of Hopkins’ poem here.

Again, there is a surface explanation. Aaron, Margaret’s grieving boyfriend, finds that it is easier to talk to Nico about Margaret’s death. They each feel they’ve found the only other person who understands. They attempt to overcome their grief together; part of that process involves watching some old movies (the book is full of film references). The book takes a very disturbing turn when Nico realizes that Aaron is trying to turn her into Margaret. There’s the reference to Vertigo.

But what of all of these references to film? To mirrors? To names? And that’s not all — there are many references to music and to painting, and probably several other forms of art. They stand out all over the pages. But I doubt I would have been able to put it together without the help from a review of this book by D.G. Meyers at A Commonplace Blog. There he illuminates the book by explaining that “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child” is itself derivative of another work of art: George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. Apparently Hopkins wasn’t inspired to write this poem because of some real life experience but rather by a literary experience. And Meyers suggests that there is evidence that Eliot’s book is also derived from another work of art. To me, this pulls together the aspects of naming in this book, as well as the various artistic references and the references to mirrors.

In a very impressive way, this book is self-conscious of its own derivation from art and its own status as a piece of art. Besides grieving, this book is about the role of art in interpreting our world. Only, it goes further than that. This is not art just to help interpret experience; this is art as a precursor to experience — or, in other words, art as the basis for experience.

I wasn’t sure about this angle as I continued reading the book. In fact, in the last few pages I felt that if Prose didn’t revisit this angle, it wouldn’t have actually been anything other than over-reading — but there it all comes together in a family trip to Rome where the father finds the perfect cover for his book Eschatology for Dummies— a picture of Fra Angelico’s The Last Judgment. And there’s the final scene where the adult Nico goes to an art gallery in France. When some clouds cover the sunlight, the pieces of art lose their shimmer and look more like mirrors.

There’s more to this book. Even reading it from the perspective outlined above leaves me feeling like I’ve only grasped a part of it. Somehow all of those artistic aspects are tied to the grief — and it’s saying a lot about this book that it convinced me it is worthy of closer readings in the future. That is not unsophisticated or clichéd. And I believe close readings would reward both adults and young adults.

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