During pre-publication readings from her sometimes lyrical, sometimes mournful, always enthralling 12th novel, Goldengrove, Francine Prose was amazed to hear her listeners laugh.
"People laughed!" Prose exclaims during a call to the Greenwich Village home she shares with her husband, the artist Howard Michels. Prose speaks in energetic, good-humored bursts of thought. "I was surprised. Because the book seems to me so grim. But then, apparently, it is not. So I'm delighted, really."
A wicked sense of humor has been a hallmark of most of Prose's novels. Blue Angel (2000), a National Book Award finalist, is a devilishly funny, politically incorrect send-up of academic life. And her widely praised novel A Changed Man (2005) is a gleefully pointed social satire in which a disenchanted American neo-Nazi seeks redemption by teaming up with a prominent Holocaust survivor.
But Goldengrove, which takes its title from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, is, as Prose says, "different from any of my other books." Its humor is rarer and warmer and arises from how well Prose inhabits the body and psyche of her immensely appealing narrator, Nico, who is 13 years old during the tragic events of the summer she describes.
"Nico has a very lively mind," Prose says. "Getting her voice right was the hardest part of the novel. I wanted the language to be very elegant and very lyrical. But with a kind of raw emotion all the way through. That's a hard balancing act. It was also challenging to remember what it was like to be that age."
"I never had a daughter, but teenagers are teenagers, and I have spent a lot of my life around teenagers."
Prose, who is the mother of two adult sons and has recently become a grandmother, says, "I never had a daughter, but teenagers are teenagers, and I have spent a lot of my life around teenagers. My younger son has read the novel and he says 'God, you've ripped off everything about our family and put it in the book.' But no one except my kids and maybe my husband would think there's anything of our family life in this novel. This family is nothing like ours. Nothing. But being my kids, they assume the only way I could have found out there was such a thing as Grand Theft Auto was to have learned it from them, because I am so ignorant otherwise."
In fact, Prose is anything but ignorant of the particulars of family life or of the inner lives of teenage family members. Goldengrove is, among many things, a very wise novel about the family dynamics of grief and loss. Within the book's first 20 pages, Nico's older, artistic, athletic, much-idolized sister Margaret has leapt from the rowboat the two sisters share on a languid summer afternoon and swum toward their family's house on the shore. This Sunday tradition is fraught with the sibling tensions and affections that are resolved only when the sisters come together again on the family's dock. But this time Margaret does not make it to the shore. Instead, inexplicably, she drowns. The remainder of the novel is about the family's floundering, occasionally triumphant efforts to deal with the incomprehensible pain of Margaret's death.
Prose began writing Goldengrove two months after the death of her mother, to whom the novel is dedicated. "Its origins were completely related to my mother's death," Prose says. "I knew it was a narrative about grief. I wanted it to be about, partly about, how one recovers from grief. But since I had no idea how to do that when I began writing the novel, I thought maybe I'd find out by the time I finished. One of the things Nico says to her father is that she walks around thinking everyone else is walking around pretending to be normal but they are suffering. That was something that was much on my mind when I was writing the book: walking down the street and thinking, yikes, everyone may be in horrible pain."
"It's not accidental that people talk about sex and death in the same sentence so often. Life does assert itself in a certain ways, especially in highly pressured circumstances."
Goldengrove is also about a 13-year-old girl coming into sexual and intellectual self-awareness under trying circumstances. Throughout the course of the novel, Nico struggles to find her authentic self in countless ways, including her relationships with boys and men. "Nico is coming of age under the worst possible circumstances," Prose says. "It's not accidental that people talk about sex and death in the same sentence so often. Life does assert itself in a certain ways, especially in highly pressured circumstances."
Prose, a fastidious stylist who is also somehow astonishingly prolific, calculates that Goldengrove went through 130 drafts before completion. She spent months changing and rechanging the adjectives in the last transporting sentence of the book. "I write every minute I can, which unfortunately is not as many minutes as I would like. The paradox is the less well received your work is, the easier it is to write because you have more time. Plus, I'm knocking on wood, I actually have a life. If my son and daughter-in-law ask me to babysit for my granddaughter, I drop everything. I would much rather hang out with her than do anything else."
Prose says she chose the book's title "about five minutes before she sent it to the publisher. I knew that Goldengrove would be the name of Nico's father's bookstore because her parents are former hippies, romantic, idealistic and poetic in a certain way. Hopkins is such a nutty writer. I love him. I remember reading him in college and not having the faintest idea what he was about. Nico reads the poem ["Spring and Fall: To a Young Child"] and doesn't have the faintest idea what it's about. And she doesn't like it. It was fun writing about it from her point of view."
"One of my hopes for the book, " Prose says at the end of our conversation, "is that Nico's search for what will help her get through her grief and loss will help others who are experiencing something similar. It certainly helped me."
Alden Mudge writes from San Francisco.