Thursday, April 29, 2010

Goldengrove, by Francine Prose

My mother died unexpectedly when I was thirty, but when I heard the news I suddenly felt thirteen again. The protagonist of "Goldengrove," Nico, is thirteen years old when her older sister drowns. Prose's novel is a stunning rendering of a girl dealing with overwhelming grief at that fragile age, a time when life for a girl is really not just one thing, but is more a passage to becoming to what lies ahead.

Nico's parents, who are wallowing in their own grief, pretty much check out. Nico, who Prose describes as chubby girl who looks up to her uber-talented sister, is left to deal with her grief, rudderless, and acts out in the risky ways that manifest the turmoil she feels inside. I love how Prose captured her character's experience. Nico reminded me of all the times I felt terrified, and fumbled, as if blind, when I was 13, (I wasn't grieving my mother back then, although I felt unmoored as she was not available because of her mental illness), and how that same experience flooded back when I did get that phone call, at thirty, telling me she had died. Looking back, the sense of loss, and the entire experience of grief, made me a little crazy. At the time I remember feeling like a different person was inhabiting my body, a person who might do things out of character, just like Prose describes Nico's journey down that same road. Prose's depiction of the family's grief, as they each drifted off on currents of their own felt very real.

Prose intrigues me. The name Francine Prose (with a name like that, how could she not become a writer?)would not normally set off my "Jewdar", but her name must be misleading, as there are so Jewish-related elements in some of her works. Before "Goldengrove" I had read only one other of Francine Prose's many novels - but that one was a doozy. The premise of "A Changed Man" was that a young Neo-Nazi enters the office of the head of a Jewish agency (someone who reads suspiciously like Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League) and claims to have turned over a new leaf. That novel, "A Changed Man" was so suspenseful and thought provoking, that when "Goldengrove" caught my eye, I had to bite.

Checking the library system, I found that among her many listings, Prose co-authored a children's book called "The Lamed-Vavniks", referring to the Kabbalistic concept that God has hidden 36 holy people in the world at any given time. (According to gematria, the system that assigns numerical values to Hebrew letters, the number 36 is derived by adding the values of the Lamed and the Vav.) Anyway, there is some definite Jewish connection here.

But I digress. "Goldengrove" is so well written that reading it is akin to sitting in a big, comfy easy chair. I don't mean to infer that this is an easy, fluffy beach read, because it's not. What I mean is that when you dig into a book like this, just as when you lower your behind into a well built, solid chair, you feel good, relaxed. You know you won't fall. You are in good hands. Prose's prose is stunning, in the way the best books are when they capture details about common experiences that we have never put into words. I love her storytelling and look forward to what comes next.

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