7 December 2012

Francine Prose: Goldengrove (2008)

(FORENOTE: Francine Prose was among 203 other scarcely believably mean-spirited  writers such as Kamila Shamsie, Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi in objecting to Charlie Hebdo receiving the Pen America freedom of speech courage award last May. As I've already written this post I won't throw a childish tantrum and delete it, but I shall certainly not be reading any (more) books by any of the people who objected: in literature, there are few things worse than a hopelessly ignorant, narrow-minded author. For once, I find myself in agreement with Salman Rushdie, who said of these writers: 'I hope nobody ever comes after them'. Quite: their behavior is shameful. The full list of writers who objected (interestingly called a 'list of shame' by one person) is here. The comments are well worth reading too. (Written on the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo killings, 7 January 2015.)

Francine Prose's Goldengrove is set in about 2003 and narrated by a woman – now married with children – telling of a tragic event and its aftermath that occurred when she was thirteen years old.1 The title is taken from Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem 'Spring and Fall: To a Young Child', which is the epigraph:

'Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.'

The narrator is Nico, named by her hippy parents after Nico of Velvet Underground fame, who also (somewhat unhippyishly, surely?) named their older daughter Margaret and her father's bookstore Goldengrove after the poem.

The English paperback edition cover quotes from Sarah Churchwell's review of the book in the Guardian as '[One] of the great coming-of-age novels', which I probably can't deny, although most people's coming-of-age experiences aren't anything like as traumatic as Nico's. Near the beginning of the novel Margaret – who is four years older than Nico – drowns following a heart attack, and the remaining three family members are left with their grief. And grief is very much the main theme of the book: Nico's mother copes by taking increasing quantities of prescription drugs, her father attacks his long-gestating book on eschatology with renewed zest, and at first Nico thinks she's found help in Margaret's boyfriend Aaron.

Nico keeps her relationship with Aaron (who is the same age as Margaret) from her parents – as indeed Margaret was forced to do –because her father thinks he has 'a screw loose'. Aaron is grieving for Margaret too, and initially Nico believes that they can both gain from each other by working through their grief together, but it appears that her father's diagnosis was correct, and that the loss of Margaret has unhinged him more: he sees a kind of double of her in Nico.

Time is the real healer in the end, of course.

This is a thoughtful, intelligent novel with some lovely one-liners, some of which seem far too clever for a thirteen-year-old – in fact they seem more like the esprit de l'escalier2 of the older narrator.

1 Yes, it's about 2003 and online buying is mentioned, emailing is mentioned, and yet the reader is expected to believe that two teenagers from middle-class US families do not have cell phones? The plot creaks in a few places due to this rather glaring anachronism.

2 I really can't bring myself to write the ugly English translation of that expression, which is used on several occasions in the novel.

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