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August 25, 2008

Goldengrove by Francine Prose

I’m not sure why my review of Francine Prose’s Goldengrove has to begin with a discussion of whether or not it is a Young Adult novel. (It is a novel that “takes its place among the great novels of adolescence,” says its Amazon product description, though I’m not sure this is the very same thing.) I’m not sure why my review has to begin with this discussion, because I know I wouldn’t care so much about a blurring between fiction and non, between poetry and prose, say, or even between a novel of graphics or text. But for some reason the distinction between Young Adult Lit. and Lit. Proper strikes me as altogether essential.

Which is not to say that YA isn’t literature, because it is, moreover it is the very literature that teaches us to love literature. Not simply literature’s adolescent sibling, but still, it is a genre onto itself.

So the question I’m dealing with now is, what makes a book YA? Is it anything more than a youthful protagonist? For often enough the boundaries are blurred, and it’s really quite difficult to tell. For example, the recent story of Margo Rabb, whose book’s YA status was determined by her publisher’s marketing department. And then there’s Francine Prose, a prolific novelist for adults (though she has written a YA novel before). Her new book is Goldengrove, narrated by thirteen year old Nico, taking place over one summer as her family is suffering from the sudden death of her older sister Margaret.

The novel was lovely, gripping and sad, made all the more compelling by moments of absolute clarity. The perfect details of family life, of breakdown and suffering– the contents of Margaret’s work-in-progress bedroom, a younger sister’s unconscious mimicry, the disturbing moment when young people realize that even adults are vulnerable. By Nico’s voice also, which tells the story with confidence, even when her own self is wavering. Her parents growing apart from her, and from each other, and then the process through which the members of this family try to put themselves whole again.

It is Nico’s confident voice, however, that leads me to believe that this book is YA. And I’ve written about this before, about the distinction between literature that is YA or not. The difference being that the latter creates a gap between the narrative voice and the reader, and as a reader goes from childhood to adulthood, they will cross it. Examples, some however inadvertent, are Catcher in the Rye, Anne of Green Gables, Huckleberry Finn, a lot what Esther Freud writes, and even Harriet the Spy and Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself.

Examples are not (however infinitely readable these novels might be) Special Topics in Calamity Physics (which I loved), Prep (which I didn’t), and (I suspect, though I don’t actually know) anything Harry Potter. Forget the third example (v.v. controversial), but with the first two, their young narrators were absolutely in control of their stories. Even when they weren’t in control, they were smart enough and looking back from far away enough that they would be speaking from a wiser place. As opposed to Holden Caulfield, who wasn’t, though many of his readers wouldn’t realize this until later. Or to the narrator of Hideous Kinky who (from The Guardian Book Club today) “merely reports the signs of adult meaning… The reader is left to construct the story.”

I mean that for this second group of examples, if you encounter these books when you are fourteen, you’d find the books much unchanged years later.

To say that Goldengrove is such a book is not to demean it. It is not to say that the book lacks an edge either, because Nico’s dealings with her dead sister’s boyfriend take quite a sinister turn by the end of the novel. And further, it does not mean that this book isn’t worthwhile for an adult to read, but I was conscious all along that I was not quite its intended audience. Even though it was a sophisticated book, and it was– very cool film and music references, its adult characters interesting and well-developed, beautiful writing and pointed insights. But the story was so firmly inside Nico’s head, processed in spite of her confusion, and though the story’s feel is altogether immediate as it goes, I wasn’t surprised at the end to find out that it’s being told from years onward.

I wasn’t surprised either to find that a work by Francine Prose would forgo that gap between narrator and reader. The only other novel I’ve ever read by her is Blue Angel, whose altogether creepy narrator coaxed a tricky sympathy that was most disturbing. If we could learn to get in the head of Ted Swenson, Champion Scumbag, then identifying with Nico is no great feat. It’s what we’re suppose to do as we read Goldengrove, but such a lack of distance keeps this from being a deeper novel. (Which is definitely not the case with Blue Angel, but of course these are two very different kinds of stories).

So why is this distinction important? Because if this was an adult novel, I’d judge it a weak one. Lacking a certain complexity, featuring a predictable storyline etc. etc. But as a YA novel, Goldengrove is brilliant. Which isn’t lesser, no, because I think a story for fifteen year olds has to be different than a story for their mothers. And to pretend otherwise– for the sake of the
book, out of courtesy for its authors, its readers– is to miss something pretty essential.

I enjoyed this book, but if I were fifteen again, it would have spun me a spell. And certainly it is no slight on Prose to say that fifteen year-olds are lucky to have her writing just for them.

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