This is the second book I've read this year that proves one point: those who write most beautifully about writing, sometimes don't write the best books.
I bought this book--and I hardly ever buy new bookstore novels, but I had a gift card--only because I got so much out of Prose's Reading Like a Writer, and I wanted to see how her fiction reflected the person who said, "I had my own private pantheon....P.L. Travers, Astrid Lindgren, E. Nesbit, the idols of my childhood," and who marvelled over Chekhov's stories. Also it was the only book of hers that the mall bookstore had in stock.
Goldengrove doesn't read like a novel by someone who's published over twenty books and who is even older than I am. It reads like a first or maybe third novel by somebody quite a bit younger--a good first or third novel, but clumsy in ways that early novels often are, and younger in a kind of flat-toned, what's-the-point style (maybe that's supposed to be the main character's voice, but I found it dull). It reminds me of a recent film that Mr. Fixit and I watched where none of the characters seemed clear on their purpose even for being in the story. Not as bad as "the guy in the hat kills the other guy in the hat," but there's kind of a reality and reader-sympathy speedbump that Ms. Prose just doesn't seem to have gotten over...with the exception of Elaine, a middle-aged woman who (not surprisingly) Ms. Prose does bring to life. (Like Jean Little, Ms. Prose can't resist throwing her own favourite books into her fiction: Elaine is reading The Man Who Loved Children and also likes Two Serious Ladies, both of which are discussed in Reading Like a Writer.) [Update: I haven't read either of those books, but I found this review of Two Serious Ladies interesting--it also mentions Reading Like a Writer. Sorry, Elaine, I'm not running to read it.]
As someone pointed out in an Amazon review, even the time and age elements in the novel don't seem quite consistent or believable, which again is surprising. The story is told in the first person by a thirteen-year-old girl (Nico), or, you would assume, someone who can't be much older than that even now because of all the "twenty-first century" references; however, in the last chapter it's clear that she's telling her story as a married mother of two, possibly years later. Her parents, as young people, "ran off to be hippies" and wore "long hair, overalls, bandannas..." Look, I have kids that age too, so I should be somewhere around the age of Nico's mother, right? Assuming that Nico's parents didn't have a huge gap between picking soybeans and having babies? Well, during the soybean '70's I was in grade school. Nobody my age grew up to be a "hippie." Eco-freaks, maybe, but that's a later incarnation. (I'm curious: where does Nico's computer-phobic father find ribbons for his Selectric? On E-bay?)
Another review compared Goldengrove to The Lovely Bones, which I haven't read. But what does invite close comparison is Lois Lowry's 1977 "children's book" (?) A Summer to Die, a short (160 pages) and elegant novel about losing a sibling. Like Goldengrove, Lowry's novel refers specifically to Hopkins's poem and the line "It is Margaret you mourn for." Lowry's book contains long-haired, overall-wearing characters too, but in 1977, they fit better. The older sisters are both beautiful and somewhat self-centered. The professor father in A Summer to Die is writing a book about irony; the bookstore-owning father in Goldengrove is writing a book that he tentatively titles Eschatology for Dummies.
A Summer to Die has a few contrived-plot issues, but it's very concrete, and nothing about it is overdone or manipulative; one Amazon reviewer points out that the details stick with you for years. You remember (if you've read it) Meg dealing with grief by eating an entire bowl of shelled peas (it made perfect sense at the time); the camera and darkroom details; the chalk line down the bedroom; the mother's quilt; the fringed gentians at the end. Goldengrove takes similar elements, stretches them out to almost three hundred pages, and adds profanity and other very un-family-friendly content. After reading this one, I don't think I'll ever look at pistachio ice cream the same way again. (What is it with grieving characters stuffing green food items in their mouths?)
There were a couple of really good lines in the novel: where Nico is trying to see pictures in clouds and can't come up with anything better than a sheep, another character says he sees Abraham Lincoln, and Nico thinks, "Margaret would have seen something even odder and cooler than Lincoln. Or maybe she would have heard the cloud singing Otis Redding." I liked that.
But overall--I just wanted the book to be done.
There's an NPR excerpt from the book here.