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Grief — And Growing Up — In 'Goldengrove'

Everyone knows how confounding it is to turn 13; it's no wonder it's a famously unlucky number. There's really no way to bust out of childhood's tender cocoon without a measure of inelegance. In Goldengrove, Francine Prose manages to remember the feelings of that awkward stage and recreate them — tenderly and without condescension — for readers who've left their teens far behind them.

Nico, the 13-year-old narrator of Goldengrove, has a particularly thorny challenge: She has to navigate puberty and grief at the same time. In the first 20 pages, her beloved older sister Margaret drowns while swimming in the family lake. Over the summer after her death, everyone — Nico, her mother and father, family friend Elaine and Aaron, the boyfriend Margaret left behind — must grow up and into what they will be without Margaret in their lives.

More than a few novels juxtapose adolescence with loss — sex and death make an oddly natural pair — and most of those resort to the pat "That's what I learned the summer I was 13" for their sweeping philosophical uplift. Goldengrove steers clear of the cliché with its emotionally articulate narrator; Nico has remarkably good judgment about her family and friends, even when she chooses not to exercise it.

It's cathartic to watch Nico's choices morph from those made in sorrow to those made in forgiveness. As the adults around her flounder and grieve, Nico metabolizes her sister's death — re-imagining her sister as a kind of protective presence, wearing Margaret's clothes, comforting Margaret's boyfriend. The way Nico internalizes her sister rather than her sorrow, is a reminder that growing up is more powerful than mourning. Ultimately it is Nico's tweenaged stage — and the inevitable rebirth that is part of puberty — that gives her the tools to move forward and care for herself.

Goldengrove is a departure from the biting irony of Prose's other novels — there's no satire here, just a mirror held up to the sorrow in ordinary lives. That's not to say that there aren't strains of humor in the book — it's to Prose's credit that the book never gets maudlin, and Nico is charming and witty, in spite of herself. It's a study of grief and growing-up, that, despite its light touch, has staying power.

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Barrie Hardymon
Barrie Hardymon is the senior editor for NPR's Investigations team. In 2020 she was the editorial lead for election coverage and ran NPR's pop-up talk show during the early days of the coronavirus called The National Conversation from All Things Considered. Before that she was senior editor at NPR's Weekend Edition, and the lead editor for books. You can hear Hardymon on the radio talking about everything from Middlemarch to middle-grade novels, and she's also a frequent panelist on NPR's podcasts It's Been A Minute and Pop Culture Happy Hour. She went to Juilliard to study viola, ended up a cashier at the Strand and finally got a degree from Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars, which qualified her solely for work in public radio. She lives and reads in Washington, D.C.