- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2008

By Francine Prose
Harper Collins, $24.95, 275 pages REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died? Three decades ago, Eric Segal answered that question in a sad and occasionally treacly movie and then in a huge best-selling novel, so we have a pretty good idea. But what can you say about an 18-year-old girl who died? That’s the question Francine Prose seems to be posing at the beginning of this fine, and occasionally unsettling, novel. The real inquiry, as it turns out, focuses on four important people who were left behind — her parents, her boyfriend and, most centrally, her 13-year-old sister. By the end of book, a very great deal has been said, quite movingly, about all of them.

Novelists often use poetry to enhance or embellish or set the tone of their narrative, and when it’s done well it can be quite effective. It’s done very well here.

The book’s title is taken from Gerard Manly Hopkins’ 1885 poem, “Spring and Fall: to a Young Child,” which begins:

“Margaret are you grieving,
Over Goldengrove unleaving?…”

And ends, 11 lines later, with:

“It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.”

And it is Margaret they all mourn for in this resolutely unsentimental novel.

Sisters Margaret and Nico and their parents live in a comfortable house on the shore of Mirror Lake. It’s the first Sunday in May, and the girls are sunning on the family rowboat in the middle of the lake. Life is good and the future presumably even better.

Nico idolizes her big sister as only a younger sibling can idolize an older one. To Nico, Margaret seems near-perfect, talented, beautiful, sure of herself. Nico says, “My sister was the poet. I was Miss One-Thing-After-the-Next.” I’d guess that’s a very accurate description of how a still-cocooned 13-year-old girl would view her beautiful butterfly of a sister five years her senior.

“People told us we looked alike,” relates Nico, “but I couldn’t see it. Margaret was the beautiful sister, willowy and blond. The lake breeze carried her perfect smell. She smelled like cookies baking. She claimed it wasn’t perfume. It was her essence, I guessed. I was the pudgy, awkward sister. I still smelled dusty, like a kid.”

Nico feels, probably correctly at this point in the family’s life, that her parents favor her sister. It’s not that they don’t love Nico, for they do. But Margaret is such a star, with her beautiful singing voice, her own distinct style and her handsome, equally talented boyfriend, Aaron (with whom, Margaret admits to Nico, she has recently been having sex).

The parents aren’t exactly sold on Aaron. Margaret’s mother thinks he’s “too handsome,” and her father says, without offering any evidence, that he has “a screw loose.” But they don’t try to stop Margaret from seeing him, in large part because Margaret will leave for college in the fall, which they view as the beginning of what will surely be their older daughter’s special journey through life.

Unfortunately, there’s a cloud over Margaret’s journey. She has a mild heart condition that has already caused her to faint several times. The family pediatrician, who has run tests, deems the “heart stutter” not serious. He tells Margaret to eat well and to exercise, and he warns her not to smoke. But Margaret does smoke.

Nico says, “I told myself to keep quiet.” But she can’t. “I said, ‘You shouldn’t smoke.’

“‘Why not? One cigarette’s not going to kill me. God, you do sound like Mom.’

“‘That’s three,’ I said. ‘Three cigarettes in an hour.’

“Margaret gave me a long, unreadable look. Was it anger? Affection? The sun in her eyes? She stood. The boat rocked slightly.

“‘Smoke this,’ she said. She smiled and gave me a funny salute she’d copied from Ginger Rodgers. Then she dove into the water.”

Nico watches her sister swim away. Realizing she now has to row the boat to shore by herself, she decides to rest for a while. But when she looks to the shore and doesn’t see Margaret sunning herself on the dock, she changes her mind and begins to row — as fast as she can. On the bank, she calls her name, but there is no answer.

There will never be an answer, for shortly after Margaret dove in the water, her heart gave way.

All of that action takes place in the first chapter. In the remaining 15, Nico and her parents and Aaron all try to come to terms with Margaret’s death.

The mother turns to pills, the father to a book he has been writing for years, and Nico turns to Aaron.

A new haircut, weight lost to grieving and a sudden growth spurt cause Nico to look more and more like Margaret. The parents see it and say nothing, but so does Aaron. He and Nico begin to meet, without Nico telling her parents whom she is seeing. It’s all rather innocent and even rather touching, at first. Then the meetings escalate, Nico starts lying to her parents, inventing elaborate ruses so she can be with Aaron, and he begins suggesting she wear certain items from her sister’s wardrobe.

If you think you know where this is going, you may be right (but I’ll never tell). Francine Prose (who has written 14 other novels, five nonfiction books and two novels for young adults plus five for children!) plays out the skein of her story with the skill of a first-rate author of mysteries or thrillers. But as skillfully as she tells her tale, that’s not the most impressive aspect of this novel.

What I found so memorable is her ability to show how difficult it is to deal with a life-altering loss, especially of someone as close as a child, a sibling or a parent (in that order of difficulty). For example, here’s a vignette of her parents, just three weeks after Margaret’s death: “Occasionally, I’d find my parents in unexpected places. Dad in the middle of the stairs, Mom in the garage as if she’d gone out with a purpose that got vaporized by the paint fumes. She took on massive housecleaning projects that she left half done. She ordered a paper shredder, and on Sundays, instead of music, I’d hear the hum of Mom making confetti from ancient tax returns she’d found in the attic.”

Francine Prose, who usually writes satirical social commentary, shows here that she also has a rare insight into human nature, and an even rarer ability to depict it, in all its joys and sorrows.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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