Francine Prose is probably one of the better-known authors of contemporary times, and she’s published both for adults and young adults. Goldengrove is the first title of hers I’ve read, and throughout the time of listening to it, I was reminded over and over of Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere.
Nico adores her older sister Margaret: she’s a wise girl, slightly quirky, and full of style and sass. Her boyfriend Aaron is intriguing, despite their father’s assessment that he “has a screw loose.”
But when Margaret goes for a leisurely boat ride and drowns, everything Nico knows about herself, her family, and Aaron falls away as she searches for meaning in her life and in Margaret’s.
Goldengrove is a story about loss and the search for oneself — Nico, like Lennie in Nelson’s title — must figure out how to handle immense loss at a very young age. And not only is she struggling with loss, she also struggles with the crush and desire she has to be with Aaron. Together, perhaps they can forge the loneliness and loss and find comfort in one another.
But it might just be the case that Nico’s father’s description of Aaron is truer than she ever could believe.
Prose’s novel is dark and haunting, as readers are dropped into Nico’s grief. We have no barrier but rather experience her pain alongside of her. When she avoids old films that would have satisfied Margaret’s need for entertainment or when she spends intimate time with Aaron discussing loss and life, we are inside her. It is raw and powerful.
Were I to read this book, though, I don’t think I would have finished it, but thanks to the magnificent audiobook read by Mamie Gummer, I kept going. Perhaps there is something more palpable for me when loss is narrated or captured in a human voice, but the audiobook drew me in in a way that I could not be drawn into Nelson’s title. I could not connect and feel I wouldn’t connect on the written word, but something about the human element — felt between the spaces of the words read — captured me.
That said, the 7-disc audio published by Harper Collins did not move quickly for me, nor did I find myself eager to dive into each disc as I finished the one prior. Goldengrove requires deliberate listening and absorption, and despite the fact I could have plowed through this in less than a week, it took me nearly two to complete the audio. After a disc, I needed time to think through what happened and how it impacted the characters and me. Near the end of disc 6, there is a major plot twist, and it took me nearly four days to want to continue. But never once did I think I needed to quit; I just needed the space to think.
Gummer’s performance is entirely believable, though she comes off sounding a bit older and wiser than your typical girl Nico’s age (she is 11 or 12 in the story). Given Nico has been thrust into adulthood prematurely, though, the wise and tempered way she speaks feels right. We have a single voiced narration, too, which I appreciated greatly; I have mixed feelings about women voicing men and vice versa, and I think in this story, that tactic could have cheated the story. The production and editing on this title work well, though there were a few times that it was clear recording sessions had changed. I thought the silence in the background spoke volumes and made this production just click.
Goldengrove is a contemporary, realistic fiction title published for an adult audience, but it has significant crossover appeal, particularly for fans of Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere. Fans of Jodi Picolt looking for something with a little more heft will likely find quite a bit to like here, as well. It is much more literary, drawing in allusions to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring & Fall.” This isn’t a story for the faint of heart, and some of the images and the poetry sprinkled throughout will remain with you.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).