Friday, September 30, 2011
Francine Prose on Death and Grief by the Lake
(Originally published in the Denver Post in October 2008)
In Francine Prose’s novel “Goldengrove”(HarperCollins, $25), the drowning death of 17-year-old Margaret rips her sister Nico and her parents apart with grief. In her tragic and illuminating new fiction, Prose uses Margaret’s death to explore how a family both fails and succeeds to come to terms with a sudden tragedy.
For Margaret, the summer in upstate New York was her last one before she would have left town for college. A sensual beauty, Margaret was a budding torch singer with a rebel boyfriend and a sister who idolizes her. When she drowns in the lake in front of the family house, the 13-year-old Nico is devastated. The girls’ mother submerges her grief in a addiction to painkillers and the father obsessively researches a 19th century doomsday cult, becoming more and more distant.
For Prose, the first part of the new novel was an interest in precocious girls like the doomed Margaret. “I went to a very conservative high school,” said Prose in an interview at a diner near her Manhattan home. “The nurse checked the girls every day to see that they were wearing stockings. Quite a number of students in the years ahead of me would have fit Margaret’s bill, but there wasn’t one in particular. I was thinking about the experience of looking up to the older girls.”
“I’ve spent a lot of time around teenagers,”noted Prose. “I was one, then I had my two sons. A lot of the experience of writing about Nico was trying to recreate what it was like to be a 13-year-old girl. I reread ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and I went out and looked at friend’s daughters, to see how they were acting. Kids are often capable of being 14-years old and 40-years old at the same time.”
The 60-year-old Prose is the author “Household Saints” and 13 other books of fiction. The recent publication of “Goldengrove” comes after a busy summer as the president of the PEN American Center, a chapter of the world’s oldest human rights and literary organization. During the Beijing Olympics, her group championed the cause of more than two dozen Chinese writers being persecuted by the Chinese government.
For the setting of the novel, Prose tapped into her own teenage experiences of unsupervised trips with others kids to lake houses, including the exploding teenage hormones.
“In high school, I would visit friends who had lake houses, and there was always something so sexy and unsupervised about the visits,” said Prose. “When friends learned how to drive, we’d take trips to the lake houses. Sometimes the parents were there, and other times they were not.”
The odyssey of “Goldengrove” allowed Prose to explore teenage lies and fabrications. “One of the things the book is about is teenage lying, and like every teenager, I was an expert at it,” she said. “So were the girls in the novel. You were counting on parental distraction. In this case, the parental distraction was a hideous grief that is so intense that the parents can’t be blamed for being distracted. The parents are suffering. Everyone in the novel is suffering. So much of the story for me is how people deal with suffering.”
In the novel, Nico makes the comment that instead of their grief drawing her family together, it blew them apart. “There are two ways grief can go,” explained Prose. “It can pull people together or it can blow them apart. Nico’s family is essentially a happy family, and regardless of what Tolstoy says, happy families are not all alike. The family has to deal with a sudden, horrible loss, and the extent to which you are not equipped to deal with this grief determines how your family will go on after this.”
Nico’s grief is made much worse by the fact that Margaret drowned while Nico was with her. “For Nico, death is obviously a great mystery and she’s trying to deal with the mystery of absence and loss,” she said. “It’s a human inability to address the idea of ‘How could this person be here, then now not be here?’ You can’t get your mind around it.”
The second half of the novel is consumed by Nico’s strange involvement with Aaron, Margaret’s boyfriend. The two of them torturously act out events from Margaret’s lost life. Nico’s hard ride into adolescence comes with the realization that her parents can’t save her anymore.
In the hands of a lesser writer, Aaron’s bizarre and dangerous relationship with Nico would be just a sick scenario. Prose, however, makes Aaron’s grief real and palpable, explaining some of his unacceptable behavior.
“The boyfriend Aaron is also doubly unable to deal with Margaret’s death,” said Prose. “I had to make his character sympathetic, for I knew that if he was some creepy older guy going out with a 13-year-old girl, the novel would fall apart. When I realized that he was in his own state of grief and trying to reverse what had happened, his character came together for me.”
Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.