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'Goldengrove' Traces The Contours Of Grief

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Francine Prose's new novel is rooted in a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that begins, "Margaret, are you grieving/ Over Goldengrove unleaving?" And while Hopkins' poem is about a child's grief for the passing of the seasons — and by extension, the intimation of mortality — Prose's novel concerns the death of a young woman, also named Margaret, whose parents own a bookstore called Goldengrove.

But Goldengrove the novel belongs to Margaret's 13-year-old sister, Nico, who grew up worshiping her willowy, accomplished sibling, and it traces the contours of Nico's grief when Margaret drowns. With her parents barely able to cope, Nico is left to navigate alone.

"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."

The girl slips into dangerous emotional terrain when she finds herself comforting her sister's older boyfriend. The novel also touches on themes of post-Sept. 11 national mourning and apocalypse.

Prose is known for putting her unflinching intellect and stylistic verve to work in the realm of the uncomfortable. Her books are limned in spiritual crisis, from the aftermath of a contemporary high school shooting or a collegiate sexual harassment scandal to a study of the 17th-century painter Caravaggio, who shot to fame for his realist portrayals of prostitutes, poor children and ordinary-looking people. A masterful, prolific author, Prose has written more than 20 books and contributed seminal essays on a broad range of topics to leading publications, including the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's. She is the president of the PEN American Center.

This reading of Goldengrove took place in September 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.