GOLDENGROVE by Francine Prose

The June/July EDIWTB book club selection was Goldengrove, by Francine Prose.

ProseGoldengrove is about Nico, a thirteen year-old living in remote New England, whose older sister drowns one May afternoon while the two are out canoeing on the lake behind their house. Margaret, who had a rare heart condition, never resurfaced after diving into the water. Goldengrove basically covers the summer after Margaret's death and how Nico (and her parents, to a lesser extent), cope with Margaret's death. Nico ends up in an intense but ultimately unhealthy relationship with Margaret's boyfriend, who, after first providing some solace to Nico, crosses some dangerous lines when he tries to turn Nico into Margaret to soothe his grief.

This is the first book I have read by Francine Prose. Her writing is clear and understated, and she did a fine job of describing Nico's grief and the bewilderment and loss she felt after Margaret died. She also a good job of getting into the head of a thirteen year-old. Nico's observations and thoughts felt age-appropriate, and were perhaps all the more poignant for it.

I had a little trouble with the sections that addressed that addressed the afterlife, redemption and heaven- themes that seemed to recur throughout the book (Nico's bookseller father's interest in the these topics, as well as Nico's own thoughts as a child and later in life). I ended up skimming some of those parts (what was up with the "staircase spirit" that followed Nico throughout the novel??). I was also disappointed that Nico's parents followed the pattern I've seen in so many other novels about kids whose siblings disappear or die – they disconnected and became so distracted and self-involved that they hardly noticed Nico for a whole summer. I realize that this is a plausible response to such a tragedy, but I was just hoping that in Goldengrove, the parents would be different. No such luck.

In the end, this one left me a little cold. I was sad for Nico's loss, but I had trouble really feeling much for her or her parents. Goldengrove is a short book, so it wasn't hard to get through, but I can't say that I was riveted.

Ok, EDIWTB book club readers, your turn! What did you think?

Big thanks to HarperPerennial for providing the books for this book club.

19 Comments

  • Sarah
    July 6, 2010 - 12:38 am | Permalink

    Nice synopsis, Gayle. I felt fairly neutral about this book. I could take it or leave it, which surprised me given the subject matter. The book often felt flat to me. The characters were frequently interesting, and Prose’s analysis of them was too. But in the end, no one grabbed me. I thought the book got more interesting toward the end — the last 1/3 or so. I liked that the relationship between Aaron and Nico was unconventional, but didn’t fall into a more stereotypical adolescent category. I thought that Aaron was interesting, and not as strange as everyone made him out to be. Yes, he treated Nico inappropriately, oddly, and cruelly, but I didn’t think his personality was as freaky as it was made out to be — he was a teenager trying to cope with a terrible set of circumstances. I didn’t find it credible how well healed Nico and her parents seemed at the end of the book. Their trip to Rome went too well, in my opinion (after all, Margaret had just died three months earlier — in general, the passage of time in the novel wasn’t believable to me), and I also didn’t think it was plausible that Nico would turn into an adult who shared so little, with so few people, about her family’s tragic past. She states that she told her own children about Margaret only once, and that they never asked again. That stuck me as implausible. All that said, I was intrigued enough to keep reading, and appreciated the good writing. Thank you, Gayle!

  • July 6, 2010 - 9:36 am | Permalink

    The book does sound good. I wonder about the boyfriend, though – he sounds a little creepy too.

  • July 6, 2010 - 11:54 am | Permalink

    Well, thanks to some home renovation, I am only about 1/2 way through the book. I can barely keep my eyes open at night, which is my reading time! But so far, I have to say that I am really enojoying it. I like the writing style and have marked several quotes as favorites. I feel that the grief rings true. She has just started hanging out with Aaron, so I’ll have to see how I feel about it after that relationship continues to develop.

  • July 6, 2010 - 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I’d have to agree with your assessment. I was never really invested in the story. Aaron was a huge problem for me. I didn’t think that he was as odd as Margaret’s parents thought he was… at first. As he continued his relationship with Nico, he just got wierd. It was obvious that he was depressed over the loss of his girlfriend, and at one point I got the distinct impression that he was suicidal. I’m glad that Nico figured it out eventually. I think the biggest reason that Nico turned to him was because she didn’t feel that she could turn to her parents. That is really unfortunate.
    I can’t say that I’ve ever read anything like this so I don’t really have a basis for comparison.
    I hope to have my review up later today. Thanks for hosting this discussion.

  • July 6, 2010 - 1:18 pm | Permalink

    I will visit tonight (after work) but wanted to see what everyone has to say about this book.
    I finished reading Goldengrove yesterday and am not sure what I think. On one hand the story has a creepy twist with the Aaron and Nico but I give props to the author for making me feel uncomfortable.
    I agree with you with the parents involvement – so many books read with detachment and lacking desire to continue parenting the kids still at home. What is that all about?
    I did notice that at about page 100 I was bored with the story and the direction it was going but once Aaron visits the bookstore the story takes off. I’m not sure what I wanted to happen between Aaron and Nico but I didn’t like the last scene with Aaron in his car. It seemed out of character for him to be so angry.
    Well… I wrote a little more than I thought I would. Back to work. I see that you are still working through The Girls, this is very concerning to me… as you know its a book club selection for my BC and we will be talking with the author (she’s amazing though).

  • Lindsay
    July 6, 2010 - 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Gayle, for organizing and getting us the books. I was excited to read this one, but felt as Sarah did, that I was neutral once I began reading the story. I didn’t really identify with or feel much sympathy for the characters. The parents felt very cold to me. I would think they would be more invested in Nico after the accident. Not having lived through such a tragedy, however, I don’t know what would really happen. I also couldn’t get into the relationship between Nico and Aaron. I just found it so hard to believe that he would spend such a large amount of time with a 13 year old. I get that she reminded him of Margaret, but…
    I too, though, read the book to its end if nothing else to find out how Nico’s life ended up. It would have been nice to find out about Aaron too, but perhaps that would have tied things up too neatly. Some kind of adult reunion might have been interesting.
    All in all, since it was such a short read, I enjoyed it, but I don’t know that I would really recommend it. Thanks again, Gayle, for the opportunity.

  • Miriam
    July 6, 2010 - 2:48 pm | Permalink

    I thought this was a nice read- the writing was really beautiful and I loved Nico and how much she loved her sister. I agree that you really lost patience with the parents in this novel. How annoying were they- Aaron was really in trouble and no one was paying attention to him or to Nico.
    I thought the ending was very satisfying. A lovely lovely conclusion. I agree with the spiritual side of this book- maybe that is why this family was so lost. Didn’t really get the staircase spirit- that seemed to be that uncertain, insecure part of all of us- what was the deal with that?
    That last section of Nico finding the painting of the lake that reminded her of her sister’s death was so memorable. Those lines “I felt myself slip out of my skin and become that girl watching her sister dive into the water. I lost myself in the time before, and in that innocent landscape, until the spell was broken by a museum guard, shouting” will stay with me for a long time.
    All in all a worthwhile summer read. Really liked the writing.

  • Susan
    July 6, 2010 - 4:00 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed this book and found it to be a quick read, as I was always curious to see what would happen next. The author did a good job of developing a sense of foreboding in the relationship between Aaron and Nico. I was relieved that things did not go in an even more negative direction than I’d feared.
    The one part I had trouble with was Elaine and Nico’s relationship. I found it hard to believe that Elaine would cover for such a young teenager to the extent she did. My oldest niece is 11 and Elaine’s choices made me question what I would do in a similar situation in a few short years. When does trying to be a child’s confidant become an exercise in bad judgment?
    I was puzzled by the Rome section. Why was Nico able to let go of her grief at the Roman Forum? Did she feel the skewed sense of time that sometimes occurs when visiting ancient ruins, and did that allow her to gain some distance and perspective?
    All in all, I enjoyed this book and would like to read more by this author. Thanks to Gayle for organizing this book club!

  • July 6, 2010 - 6:33 pm | Permalink

    I have just read your comments and those of others who read this book. Thank you forthis opportunity for I did like the book…and thought it was well written but some things bothered me. I thought the adults in the story could have paid more attention to Nico and I wanted them to help
    her more. And I was bothered that Elaine
    was covering for her. I agreed with most of your comments,Gayle….the ending was
    a little unbelievable though I wanted a good
    ending. I am not sure I would recommend it.
    marcia from CT

  • July 6, 2010 - 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, everyone, for the thoughtful comments. I am glad to see that there was a variety of reactions to the book, which always makes for a better discussion.

  • July 7, 2010 - 6:53 am | Permalink

    It’s so interesting, because I just finished The Local News last week, which similarly involved the loss of a child. I didn’t feel that Nico’s parents had completely checked out on her and I think the fact that I read TLN last week probably had a lot more to do with it, because those parents were a mess and never interacted with their daughter. Nico’s parents weren’t ideal but they talked to her at dinner, noticed and tried to monitor some of her activities, thought to give her a job for the summer, and humored her a little in her need for a doctor. I thought they did their best and maybe I would have thought differently had I read this book in more of a vacuum than I did.
    I was interested in Nico’s exploration and even the ghosts because she was trying so had to make some connection and wanted to be haunted by her sister that she was basically open to anything. The relationsgip with Aaron was creepy and set off alarm bells for me immediately, but I did think that the way Nico thought of him was really well done.
    I enjoyed this book overall. I had been looking forward to reading a book by Prose and I thought her writing was lovely and observant. I liked the writing from the first, and the easy lake conversations by the sisters in the beginning of the book were beautiful. Good choice Gayle! Thanks for giving me the excuse I needed to finally read Prose’s fiction. I look forward to reading more.

  • July 7, 2010 - 8:51 am | Permalink

    I posted my review this morning and made reference to The Local News too. There is alot to discuss with Goldengrove so it’s a good book club discussion book. The writing was nice but I wasn’t invested in the characters much.
    Here’s my review link:
    http://www.bookwormwithaview.com/2010/07/review-goldengrove.html

  • sheila
    July 7, 2010 - 8:57 am | Permalink

    I am glad to read these reviews because I started this book a few weeks ago and just couldn’t get into it. I got a third of the way or so and did not really have a connection to the characters and gave up. (perhaps I should have stuck it out a bit longer, seems like it picked up later on). I too have recently read The Local News as well as Songs of the Missing (Stewart O’Nan), which are both about a missing sibling — perhaps it was just too many books about a similar topic. While I enjoyed the writing in the beginning, once the sister goes missing, I found her style of writing too distant.. it did not allow me to really get to know the characters. As opposed to thinking ” what will happen next” or “I wonder what he/she is thinking” I instead was thinking “when will this pick up”… just didn’t grab me.

  • Miriam
    July 7, 2010 - 11:14 am | Permalink

    Gayle,
    Thanks for the opportunity to read this book and discuss it. I get so much out of being part of a book discussion group.
    I was not as engaged with these characters as I would have liked but I did find Nico very likeable. And I was so relieved that Aaron did not take advantage of her young age and resemblance to her sister and take things further than he did. Ick. Nico was such a nice person in spite of it all.
    All in all a satisfying read but not the “drop everything and read” type of book I am always looking for.
    Thanks again, Gayle

  • July 7, 2010 - 12:01 pm | Permalink

    I, too, read The Local News recently, and when I started Goldengrove, I thought, “Thank god these parents aren’t like the ones in The Local News.” But then, at least for a few months, they turned into those parents. I will say that I liked The Local News better, because I felt that Lydia was better drawn as a character, and the book felt more realistic. I liked Nicole’s explanation of the staircase spirit and the emphasis on the otherworldly – Nico’s attempt to connect, somehow, with Margaret – but in the end, it didn’t work for me. I want to read Songs for the Missing, but I think I will have to wait a while to get some distance from the missing/dead sibling genre.

  • July 7, 2010 - 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Hi everyone, I would like to thank Gayle for hosting this book club. I posted my thoughts about a week ago. Personally, I loved the authors writing style. The writing was easy to get into. But, the characters I did not care for. The parents seemed to distance themselves from their daughter. They were self absorbed in their lives rather than caring for their only child, Nico. Which is sad.
    The most unbelievable part was when the family took off. Nico, asked her care taker to cover for her where she went. Like what a previous commenter said. Too unbelievable, that a adult would cover for a 13 year old child.
    This story was not so much about her sister’s death but teenage adolescent behavior.
    I only read this book because of the book discussion. I would not recommend this book. But, the writing style was awesome. Thank you Gayle for hosting. You can read my review on my blog at htt://susansliterarycafe.blogspot.com

  • July 8, 2010 - 11:37 am | Permalink

    The premise of the book definitely sounds interesting and relevant to so many people: what do you do in the face of grief? How do you move forward after losing someone who matters so much? Still, I tend to shy away from books like these. Grief, at least to me, is extremely personal and I have a hard time reading about how other people handle theirs. Still, I can see this book being great for a book club as it inevitably has a lot of intense topics for discussion.

  • Sharon Walling
    July 9, 2010 - 10:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Gayle for hosting this book club. This is the first book by this author for me. I enjoyed the book. Granted is was a little confusing in parts, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed. Everyone handles grief differently and it showed in this book. I loved Nico. She was more of an adult than the rest. She matured very quickly. I think that this happens at times as well.
    Looking forward to future book clubs

  • July 18, 2010 - 8:28 pm | Permalink

    Sounds so very similar to The Local News. Having read that, I don’t think I need to read another book that seems to follow the same path so closely without offering much new.

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