Ordinary People

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, September 21, 2008


By Francine Prose

Harper. 275 pp. $24.95

Fans of Francine Prose's satire will need a few moments to reorient themselves in the pages of this doleful novel about the death of a much-loved teenage girl. With Goldengrove, the author who has so brilliantly taken on political correctness, New Age feminism, Columbine and even Elie Wiesel sheathes her acerbic wit for a searching, painful story about one family's grief.

Novels about grief face a special challenge, beyond their depressing subject: With the tragedy up front and the characters shocked into mourning, the story's dramatic momentum is hard to maintain. As Emily Dickinson wrote: "After great pain a formal feeling comes --/The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;/The feet, mechanical, go round." Powerful for a 13-line poem; potentially dreary for a 300-page novel.

Prose surmounts this challenge with the mercurial voice of her narrator, a woman named Nico looking back at the summer when she was a precocious 13-year-old. Caught in that fluid, contradictory period of naiveté and sexual awakening, self-absorption and insight, Nico is such a dynamic, unsettled character that she compels us through a story that could have been grim and static.

Goldengrove takes place in Emersonville, a bucolic town in upstate New York that's seen an influx of well-heeled Manhattan families fleeing anxieties stirred up by 9/11. Beyond the reach of cell phones or high-speed Internet, they live "in a time-warp bubble." Nico's mother is a musician, and her father runs the Goldengrove bookstore. (The store's name comes from a mournful poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.) They're hip, laid-back parents: "They often talked as if all four of us were involved in some group child-raising project," Nico tells us. Her older sister, Margaret, is gorgeous and sophisticated, a talented singer looking forward to attending Oberlin in the fall on a full scholarship. In the opening chapter, she and Nico are lying in their rowboat on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Margaret sings a sultry version of "My Funny Valentine" and then dives into the water. She's never seen alive again.

What follows is the story of how this loving family copes -- or fails to cope -- with their loss. Nico's parents know the importance of helping her through this horrendous period, but they're caught off guard by the force of their sorrow. They vacillate between ignoring her entirely and obsessing about their "Only Remaining Child." The house grows quiet. "Margaret's death had shaken us," Nico says, "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." Her mother slowly descends into a narcotic haze, "drifting in and out, like a radio station on the edge of its broadcast range."

There are also allusions to the apocalypse tucked all over this novel, a stark reminder of the calamities that extend far beyond a single family's despair. While her father works on his history of eschatology, a promising young artist in town paints visions of the Rapture, Emersonville confronts the ecological collapse of its lake, and Nico worries about irreversible global warming.

Prose is most astute with her portrayal of the stormy currents of adolescent grief. "For a second, I'd feel normal," Nico says. "Then came the dim awareness of something off, out of place. Then the truth came crashing in, and that was it for the rest of the day." One minute, she sympathizes with her parents, the next she's furious at them for loving Margaret more than her. Increasingly despondent, she nevertheless retains enough good humor to skewer the "useless advice" offered by friends and strangers. In these moments Prose loosens the leash on her wit with some withering comments about self-serving truisms, peppy clichés and vague references to the afterlife.

What's surprising about Goldengrove is how exciting it becomes. Margaret's hunky boyfriend never paid Nico much attention before, but in the throes of his sorrow, he seeks her out. Despite the age difference, the two of them discover that their shared loss provides the basis for a comforting friendship. It's also charged with an unsettling element of eroticism, and here Prose is at her very best, ratcheting up the creepy elements of this relationship. Again and again, she tempts us to suspect that Nico is in real danger only to reassure us a moment later that she's safe and sound. It's a perfect blend of the 13-year-old's persistent innocence and erratic shrewdness, all wildly confused by grief and sexual attraction. The result is a gripping crisis with strong allusions to Hitchcock's "Vertigo."

Five years ago, Prose published After, a subversive book for young adults about a high school that overreacts with deadly intensity to a shooting at a nearby school. Goldengrove speaks to an older, more sophisticated audience, and the publisher gives no hint that it might have YA appeal, but teachers trying to update their curriculum should take a look. It presents an opportunity to introduce students to a major contemporary writer and finally move beyond Judith Guest's rather formulaic Ordinary People. Nico's voice, with its quirky mix of insight and gullibility, will stick in adults' minds, and many younger readers will recognize that voice as their own. ·

Ron Charles, a senior editor of Book World, can be reached at

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