There's no roiling storm to disturb the preternatural calm over the opening chapter of Francine Prose's 15th novel, Goldengrove; instead, a late-spring idyll is disrupted for good by an ill-timed nap and a heart condition. Thirteen-year-old Nico is sleeping in a rowboat when her older sister Margaret, days away from her high-school graduation, drowns in the lake that borders their family's house. Where Nico was eagerly anticipating three months of perfecting her celebrity impersonations under Margaret's tutelage, she instead faces long days working at her father's independent bookstore without the sister she idolized.
As Nico's family folds inward, her mother and father indulge their own obsessions with finding the right painkiller and researching a local doomsday cult, but they can't help fixating on their remaining daughter. Unable to bear the scrutiny, Nico begins sneaking out of the house to meet her dead sister's boyfriend, Aaron, with whom she cultivates a cautious friendship around doing the things Margaret used to love.
Perhaps out of deference to her young narrator, Prose abandons her traditionally sarcastic tone, but replaces it with a worldly-wise mode that fits Nico as poorly as the items she borrows from Margaret's closet. And Prose never completely commits to that voice. The dead girl is obnoxiously perfect enough—okay, she loved vintage clothes and black-and-white movies, but mid-century modern too?—but Nico is irritatingly perceptive in a way that heaps its own particular brand of scorn on her parents' situation. As they contemplate suing Margaret's doctor and dream of moving back to Boston, the grief-stricken family almost becomes a caricature of a particularly upper-middle-class nightmare; even Nico eventually buys into it with her distrust of the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem for whom Margaret and the bookstore were named. A 13-year-old would be able to seriously contemplate that type of karmic dare, but not from the distance of years.
What Prose gets right, though, is the uncomfortable rapport between Aaron and Nico as they enact their own particular rituals of mourning. The boyfriend Margaret saw over the her parents' objections grounds Nico's daily emotional struggle in an uncomfortable progression, the only moving point against Prose's largely static scenes of mourning. In his late-adolescent pitch, Aaron becomes Nico's only real partner in grappling with the reality of a world without her sister, drawing her toward the rest of her life.