Francine Prose's latest novel, "Goldengrove," is a subtle, quiet, reflective novel about a family's journey through overwhelming grief after the sudden death of the eldest daughter. The novel takes place over the course of one terrible summer. The action focuses on Nico, the surviving daughter, as she battles with grief, depression, and loss of identity...all at the same time that her body is awakening to its own budding sexuality. Nico is an awkward 13-year old, unsure of who she is, and how her life may unfold. Her identity has always been entwined tightly with that of her three-years-older, beautiful, and talented sister, Margaret. The novel builds suspense as we watch Nico's drift dangerously toward an inappropriate relationship with Aaron, her dead sister's boyfriend. Originally the two come together to help each other deal with their grief, but the relationship turns strange, disturbing, and unhealthy. Many times, I found myself unable to put the book down fearing that Nico was drifting into harm's way.
I've enjoyed a number of Francine Prose's novels. A year ago, I reviewed her nonfiction work, "Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them" and I gave that book a strong five-star Amazon rating. Prose is an accomplished writer--I can count on her to deliver a finely crafted work of literary fiction. That said, I was definitely disappointed with this work. Don't get me wrong: I did enjoy it...but, for me, it only earned a three-star rating. I felt strongly that something was missing, and it took me a while to figure it out.
I've waited for over a week to write this review, I needed to sort out where this book failed me. The writing was excellent; the characterizations, extraordinary--in fact, I can still conjure up vivid images of the main character, Nico, her mother, father, sister, and a host of other lesser characters. Prose made these people real in my mind, and that is no small accomplishment. The story is not complex--it is realistic in the extreme, almost pedestrian. That's okay, too. I'm one of those readers who actually yearn for novels with outstanding characterization and slim realistic plots. So what was it that failed me here with this lovely, subtle coming-of-age book about grief and identity? In the end, it was the lack of any deeper meaning--the lack of overarching revealing themes about the truth of the human condition. The authors tells the story well, but leaves it up to her readers to derive whatever meaning they may discover within the story. In a work of popular fiction, that's okay, but in a work of literary fiction, I expected the author to take greater risks delivering, from within the body of the story, sparkling intellectual depth and insight about human nature.
Perhaps my disappointment was exaggerated because I read another books recently with a strikingly similar storyline about a young girl dealing with grief, sexual awakening, and inappropriate relationships--one that left a far stronger impression on me, and was in many ways in my estimation, a better book. That novel was "The God of Animals: A Novel" by Aryn Kyle--a debut novel that won a solid four-star rating from me. The author's overarching themes about the reality of the human condition at the end of this novel seared their way into my heart and soul--I found my eyes brimming with tears because of the honesty and clarity of the vision...and I am one not easily moved by sentiment. I suppose I expected something like this from Prose's book and was deeply disappointed when it was not there.
Of special note, Prose does an outstanding job of recreating the progression into and out of psychological depression. But again, for me, the author misses the mark: she gets the description right, but fails to reveal any insight--there are no stunning interior revelations.
Although I enjoyed "Goldengrove," I do not recommend it: there are better books being published that deserve your time. But I'll still keep an eye out for Francine Prose's next novel, and when it appears, I will probably fall in line to buy it and read it.