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Originally published Friday, September 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Goldengrove": A tale of mortality, mourning and budding maturity

Francine Prose's novel "Goldengrove" tells the story of a family that suffers a great loss and the steps they take toward re-entering the land of the living.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Francine Prose

The author of "Goldengrove" will appear at a "Words & Wine" event at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 4 at Seattle's W Hotel. Tickets are $50; price includes wine, appetizers and a copy of "Goldengrove"; 206-632-2419 or info@kimricketts.com.

"Goldengrove"

by Francine Prose

Harper, 288 pp., $24.95

Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child" forms the undercurrent of Francine Prose's new novel. She frames the story using words and concepts taken straight from Hopkins, all to stunning effect. The poem opens with a question to a child: "Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?"

"Goldengrove," suggestive of an idyllic place, is "unleaving," or losing its leaves as winter nears. The child is confronted with death, first in nature, and then, later in life, when she must face her own mortality. The changing, maturing nature of grief is examined in this sublime poem, in very few lines, the last of which is, prophetically: "It is Margaret you mourn for."

Nico, named for a German junkie rock singer by her hippie parents, and her sister Margaret, named for the girl in the poem, are out in their little rowboat on a lazy, sunny summer Sunday. Margaret is college-bound and Nico, 13, will be left behind to make her own way through the labyrinth of adolescence. Margaret is the beauty, the one with the gorgeous singing voice and the artist-boyfriend with "a screw loose," according to her father. She has a passion for old movies and the self-confidence to experiment sexually.

Nico is an as-yet unformed kid, the one who worries about polar ice caps melting, the phytoplankton in the lake (basically, pond scum) and not wearing enough sunblock.

On this perfect Sunday, Margaret jumps into Mirror Lake and does not re-emerge. The family is thrust into a chasm of grief so deep that they all enter a near-fugue state, barely able to function. Nico is left to her own devices, woefully neglected, until her father notices her again and asks her to help him in his bookstore, Goldengrove. The family's recurring question, Prose writes, is: "What is us without Margaret?"

In her desperate need to recapture her sister, Nico takes up with Margaret's boyfriend, Aaron. Now, emotionally beached, she is also confronted with the first stirrings of her own sexuality. Is she Margaret? Does Aaron think she is, or want her to be? Prose, usually ironic, satiric and witty, here examines lovingly the steps by which life reasserts itself in a slow dance of grief, loneliness, despair and, finally, a willingness to try again. Arguably, "Goldengrove" is her best book yet.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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