Reader’s Journal: Goldengrove

I very rarely abandon a book. Sometimes I will set a book down because I am distracted or not in the mood for it, but usually I have every intention of picking it up again. Abandoning a book, for me, is a deliberate and aggressive act. I do it because I feel like the author is wasting my time.

Goldengrove is the story of thirteen-year-old Nico, who loses her sister (she dies of a heart-attack in the first chapter) and then over the following summer becomes involved with her sister’s boyfriend. Blah blah blah what it means to be a grown-up. Blah blah blah art and life. Blah blah blah things aren’t what they seem…heartache shall ensue, as shall wisdom.

I abandoned Goldengrove at the end of the second chapter. I’m trying to keep in mind the rule set forth by Updike: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” Question: can I blame him (or her) for not achieving what he (or she) did attempt? Let’s assume I can, because that will make things easier. The number one problem I have with this novel is the fact that Francine Prose has created a first-person narrator, a thirteen-year-old girl, and her voice is completely inauthentic. Apart from the fact that Prose has created the cliche “wiser-than-her-years” budding teenager, she’s also given her a prop vocabulary. She’s sure to throw in references to the Internet, to BlackBerries, to global warming, to yoga, to Goth. For real? It sounds like someone, you know, trying to be “hip to the kids.” Just listen, as Nico stands outside the cemetary after her sister’s burial:

Who’d drunk that Diet Coke? A mourner? A cemetary worker? Cheating couples? Goth nerds who haunted the graveyard for fun?

Yes, yes, Diet Coke: choice drink of cheating couples and “Goth nerds” everywhere. Even a young teenager knows that cheating couples would probably have been more likely to abandon a wine bottle than a Diet Coke can.

Goth nerds? I have a vision of Prose hiring a teenager to guide her through a mall and asking questions like, “And those kids, with the black clothes and black nail polish and the math textbooks and the tape on their glasses? What do you call them?” And on that note, how about a Red Bull can, or Mountain Dew? Oh, I know, I seem off the point here, because Nico’s just wondering who it was who left the can (because she’s trying to distract herself from the pain), but it just sounds so stilted and silly, I can’t get past it.

After the funeral, Nico explains: “My parents worked it out so I could skip final exams and get the As I would have gotten anyway.” Well. It’s a good thing Nico doesn’t seem one-dimensional, like one of those precocious stereotypes you see in movies. I’m sorry, but someone struggling to pass science or history is just more interesting. Making her a straight-A student just seems to be setting up one of those “summer I bloomed emotionally” stories, where the heart catches up with the head. I don’t mind those stories, but only if the character has depth. I started thinking that maybe Prose–who apparently also writes YA–needed to read more Judy Blume, so she could get a sense of an authentic teen voice.

Oh, and the sister. The dead sister, the torch-singing seventeen year old, the great beauty with the flawed heart (literally–she dies of a heart attack), beloved of Aaron, master painter of the senior class:

Margaret was the singer, Aaron the artist. They were the glamour couple, their radiance outshone the feeble gleam of the football captain and his slutty cheerleader girlfriend.

Oh yes, teen painters are revered in high schools all across America. We care little for sports. Still, way to play to stereotypes, even by way of comparison. And mind you, Margaret is no Britney Spears. Oh no. She makes grown men cry by singing the classics, like “My Funny Valentine.” And still, the kids love her too! Revere her! Not an eye rolling in the house. I find it kinda implausible, in case you can’t tell.

Let me not forget to point out the terrific use of cliched metaphors: “One thing happened, then everything else, like a domino falling and setting off a collapse,” or “I nodded like a bobble-head doll.” Bobble-head doll! The kids love those!

But the part that made me finally just close the book and give up entirely was this:

One thing I would never tell them was that Margaret’s last words were ‘Smoke this.’ That was her special present for me, the hair shirt she’d left me to wear until time and age and forgetfulness laundered it into something softer.

Yes. Done in by the image of the laundered hair shirt. Until Downey breaks it down, she carries the burden that she mentioned to her fabulous sister with the heart problem that she shouldn’t smoke. Don’t get me wrong. Writing is difficult. But if Prose dragged this into an undergraduate writing workshop, she would probably be called out. One wonders why or how the bar lowers just because someone’s a recognized name, a published writer. She should fire her editor.

If you want to read a good coming-of-age story about two sisters, I’d suggest The Invisible Circus, by Jennifer Egan.

*image from amazon.com

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