on 15 November 2008
In this delicate study of remembrance and loss, author Francine Prose seems to be offering an antidote for grief. Goldengove begins with an accident, but its almost as if there is no explanation for why Margaret, the stunningly beautiful older sister of Nico suddenly drowns one afternoon while swimming home in the glassy and motionless Mirror Lake in Upstate New York. Indeed, the accident seems to simply occur, like a domino falling and collapsing, as almost over-night, Nico and her parents Henry and Daisy are thrust into a maelstrom of denial and grief that shatters their previously calm and transparent lives. Even as the search for Margaret`s body continues, with the divers dragging the lake, working day and night, Henry and Daisy hold Nico's hands with a steady pressure: half comfort and half restraint. Indeed, Margaret leaves behind a formidable reputation. The go-to and "it girl" and adored by those around her, Margaret was even rumored to be having sex with her handsome new boyfriend Aaron. A budding poet who also wanted to be a singer (her singing was always pure sex) Margaret was also a natural romantic and a lover of everything old - films, jazz songs, vintage postcards and clothes. She was also of the opinion that she was born too late.
Thinking back their early days with Margaret, Nico, Henry and Daisy are at a loss to deal with the state of her death. Once the idol of Nico's life, Margaret and her fit together so perfectly that Nico never anticipated such an abrupt estrangement. Each family member handles her absence differently: Henry seeks comfort in Goldengove his bookstore, spending his evenings and Sundays working on a book about how people in different cultures and eras imagine the end of the world. Daisy is diagnosed with arthritis which seems to get worse and worse as the weeks go by and she finds solace in pain-killers and Prozac. Meanwhile, Nico seems to despise everyone being alive while her poor sister is dead. For a while she works at Goldengove, her own "private kingdom," but when she gets an invitation from Aaron, "one day this summer, let's got for a ride. Hang out," what was once a relative stranger becomes a new and frightening friend.
Thrilled at the prospect of spending time with Aaron, Nico lies to her parents, going on long country drives with him and on dates to the movies while fanatically talking to him about art and the ghost of Margaret and where she might be and how she might be feeling. Obsessed with Margaret's shirt, which he insists that Nico keep wearing, Aaron seems to be in a constant golden glow, burnished by exhaustion and sadness and looking wasted but always so much more attractive to Nico, like a haunted, insomniac soul: "both of us had loved Margaret easily forming a hopeless love triangle with the dead." No doubt Margaret's death has shaken these people "like three dice in a cup" spilling them out with new faces in unrecognizable combinations: "we were wall flowers left behind when Margaret waltzed away."
Now sister less and forced to fumble through her teenage life, Nico must find a way to overcome the tragedy of Margaret's death while also trying to heal her fractured family, and that of Aaron's confusing needs. Clearly Henry and Daisy are the innocent victims of tragedy, the distractions of their own problems, and their separate solutions, keeping their attentions diverted safely away from Nico's secret life with Aaron. Certainly Aaron can't seem to rise above the grief, maybe her death has unhinged him, further loosening his screw. Meanwhile, Margaret always seems to be pulling the strings from beyond while Nico's grief over Margaret is "the hard little acorn she clutched to her chest." With the famous Gerard Manley Hopkins poem echoing throughout, the current lack of communication between the parties is surprising for such a previously close-knit family: "I'd imagined that Margaret's death had drawn our family closer, but now I understood that it had blown us apart." It is in part Margaret's death that puts it all in perspective and trumps everything that might seem huge to a normal person. In a beautifully meticulous narrative that characterizes a family in crisis, Francine Prose utilizes the themes of fleeting youth, mortality, time, age and innocence and death, and where what's going to happen is going to happen whether we like it or not. Meanwhile, Nico clashes with her family in a sticky net that seems to trap them all. The message might be bleak, but it is also one infused with great beauty, and surprisingly, a blank slate of possibilities. Margaret is gone, but over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that Nico must wake up from the long fever dream in which her sister has tried to send her messages for her boyfriend. Only then can Nico and her parents come back from the brink and perhaps finally navigate the rocky road of healing and forgiveness. Mike Leonard November 08.