. Athena's Books: Goldengrove...A Place of Grief
Sunday, July 19, 2009

Goldengrove...A Place of Grief

Goldengrove: A Novel

“Spring and Fall: To a young child”

Margaret, are you grieving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leaves, like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! as the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you will weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sorrow's springs are the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It is the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

-Gerard Manley Hopkins

“Spring and Fall: To a young child” is just one those poems I will never forget…it is both somber and lyrical, but beyond this, I did a whole paper on the literary merit of this poem back in the 90’s when I was an undergraduate at UTPA. I mean, I know what the poem is about, so when I saw Francine Prose’s novel, Goldengrove, at a “new books” display, I knew this would be no happy read.
And, just as Hopkin's poem, Goldengrove delves into the grief and sorrow brought by death, awakened longing, and the turmoil of emotions. In Goldengrove, a 13 year old girl named Niko mourns for the death of her older sister, Margaret, so named by her parents as inspired by Hopkin’s poem, almost foreshadowing or sealing the fate of their eldest daughter to a young death. To Niko, Margaret is the embodiment of all things divine with her dazzling beauty, melodic voice, and love of vintage Hollywood. Margaret’s death leaves a hole, haunting all who are close to her and crippling their capability to cope.

In her need to understand Margaret‘s death and keep a part of her alive, Niko draws closer to Margaret's grieving ex-boyfriend, an intense artist named Aaron. What starts as an innocent relationship of therapeutic mourning, soon turns into something neither of them wants to understand. Niko slowly turns into Margaret. She wears her scent and her clothes, haunting Aaron with her growing resemblance to Margaret and getting in way over her head with this brooding boy left behind by her sister. Niko hardly understands the new feelings she is experiencing, but she does know it is something she can not share with anybody. The intensity of grief turns to a perversion of desire. Aaron wants Margaret--he wants to taste Margaret on Niko’s lips.

I heard him say, thickly, "Sugar." I was afraid he'd called me something he used to call Margaret. Maybe he had, because he stepped back and spun my chair around and looked as if he was wondering who I was and how I got there.

As the speaker in Hopkin's poem reveals, “Sorrows’ springs are the same.“ Death brings pain--any death, whether it be the death of a loved one, of innocence, of an ill-fated relationship.

One of the things I love about this book is how Francine Prose brings in many allusions to works not known by many young people today. Of course, you have the poem reference, but she also includes Nick‘s name, “Vertigo” and “My Funny Valentine.” I’ve heard of all these before, but even I had to do a little research and look up things like the lyrics to “My Funny Valentine” (Actually, when I think of that song, I always think of "American Idol " because someone always sings it, and it’s one of those songs I never want to hear.) Goldengrove is a tightly woven piece with many references tied together to create an overall structure--to create a style not found in a lot of books.

For instnace, Aaron plays a version of “My Funny Valentine” for Niko by the German songwriter and singer who shares Niko’s name. Margaret had sung this song with a sultry, sensual voice right before graduating from high school. But, this version by Niko is darker with melancholic undertones and an undercurrent of a demented reality, representing the escalation from innocence to something more reckless and dangerous. As Niko says (the protagonist), it is a “song like a suicide note” with lyrics pleading for death to stay near. I guess in a way this version was Margaret’s anthem for her life and her sensual interpretation was a mockery to the belief held by many that it is merely a love song. But for her, Niko’s version (the singer) was her truth. It was a truth she shared intimately with Aaron, and now Aaron is sharing it with Niko. Aaron is showing her the true Margaret and scorning Niko for not being Margaret…then he makes her into Margaret.

I could tell that Aaron wanted me to look at him while he fed me.

Ice cream slid between my lips, shockingly cool and smooth. I'd braced myself for the dish-detergent taste. But taste was the least of it, really. I opened again. I took the spoon. Ice cream slipped down my throat. Delicious.

I don’t believe Prose meant for Goldengrove to be aimed at a YA audience even though the protagonist relates events that occur during her teen years. The narrative is darker and more sophisticated and at times lyrical, mournful, and…and…the best phrase I can come up with is beautifully despairing.

The mystery of death, the riddle of how you could speak to someone and see them every day and then never again, was so impossible to fathom that of course we kept trying to figure it out, even when we were unconscious.