Goldengrove, by Francine Prose.
I looked at myself in the mirror. And I saw her. With each step, Margaret's ghost expanded. Gingerly, I touched the glass. I thought of those fairy-tale mirrors that show you your dearest wish in return for some terrible price. Mirror, mirror on the wall. Your firstborn son for straw woven into gold, a glimpse of your drowned sister for something more expensive. Margaret filled the mirror and floated off the edges, and by the time I'd backed away far enough for the glass to contain her, Margaret had vanished, and there I was, wearing her hula shirt. - from Goldengrove, page 50 -
People told us we looked alike, but I couldn't see it. Margaret was the beautiful sister, willowy and blond. The lake breeze carried her perfect smell. She smelled like cookies baking. She claimed it wasn't perfume. It was her essence, I guessed. I was the pudgy, awkward sister. I still smelled dusty, like a kid. - from Goldengrove, page 8 -
It was meant to be an idyllic summer -- a summer like all the ones before it. But when thirteen year old Nico's older sister Margaret dives into Mirror Lake and never surfaces, everything changes. Set in New England, Goldengrove is the story of that fateful summer. Narrated in the provocative and compelling voice of Nico, the novel reveals the cracks in a family which widen with the tragedy. Nico, on the cusp of womanhood, finds herself floating free without the sage advice of her sister. Nico connects with Margaret's boyfriend, the artistic and slightly strange Aaron -- a person whom she feels free to share her stories of Margaret and the pain of loss. But Aaron is also struggling with Margaret's death ... and in Nico he sees the young woman who he once loved.
I knew the reason Aaron liked being with me was that I reminded him of my sister. I'd catch him squinting at me, searching for traces of her. I knew it, and I didn't. Some part of me believed that Aaron liked the part of me that was Nico, whoever that was. I felt as if Margaret were a plant inside me that, nurtured by Aaron, had begun to blossom. Mostly, it was fine with me, but sometimes -- usually when I was tired or lonely -- it scared me. I felt as if I, and not Margaret, was the one who had disappeared, or as if I'd become a petri dish in which my sister was growing. There were days when I wanted to say, "I'm the living sister." - from Goldengrove, page 174 -
As the summer slips by, Aaron and Nico's relationship inches towards a dangerous conclusion ... and Nico must struggle to move from adolescence into adulthood, and come to an understanding of her own needs in the wake of her sister's death.
Francine Prose's novel is that of grief, recovery, and the search for one's identity. Tender, yet realistic, Goldengrove explores the impact of suddenly losing a child and a sibling. Although the story is told from Nico's point of view, Prose gives the reader a glimpse into the devastation such a loss has on parents.
Margaret's death had shaken us, like three dice in a cup, and spilled us out with new faces in unrecognizable combinations. We forgot how we used to live in our house, how we'd passed the time when we lived there. We could have been sea creatures stranded on the beach, puzzling over an empty shell that reminded us of the ocean. - from Goldengrove, page 50 -
Prose does a remarkable job building her characters. Nico's father's relationship with his youngest daughter is flawlessly portrayed. Nico clings to her father, wants the connection with him, but also pushes him away as she discovers her own sexuality and desires. Their love of art and reading binds them together, even when everything else seems to be changing.
We were silent for miles. How strange that my father was writing the book about the end of the world, when I was the one who believed that it was going to happen. - from Goldengrove, page 164 -
I read this novel late into the night -- drawn to Nico and her journey through grief. Prose writes radiantly and with a deep understanding of her characters. If there is a flaw in the novel, it is the ending when Prose lifts the reader away from Mirror Lake and the adolescent Nico, and transports us into Nico's life as an adult. I would have preferred the book end on page 264 -- still drenched in late summer sun with a hopeful glimpse into the future.
Despite this minor complaint, Goldengrove is a book I can recommend for its beautiful writing and tender look at a young girl growing up in the wake of tragedy.
Four stars out of five.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".