13-year-old Nico was literally the last person to see her older sister Margaret alive. Margaret was a gifted singer and actress about to graduate from high school, and the girls were spending a lazy Sunday afternoon out on the lake in their family's rowboat. Margaret decided to dive from the boat into the lake and swim to shore, but she never came back up.
The shock of Margaret's sudden loss pushes the remaining members of the family in separate directions, rather than pulling them closer together. While her mother seeks to escape with prescription drugs and her father retreats to his bookstore, Goldengrove, and the book he's been writing for years, Nico seeks to connect with her sister's spirit; that leads her to the company of Margaret's artist boyfriend Aaron, who may be even more haunted than Nico is.
Francine Prose writes Goldengrove in Nico's voice, which keeps the focus squarely on her, and I thought that was a particularly appropriate narrative choice. Nico is 13, a particularly self-focused age; parents start to recede in importance, peers matter more, and everything is filtered through self-reference. The parental characters in Goldengrove seemed underdeveloped to me, but that also seemed correct; they've both pulled back in response to their elder child's death, while at the same time, Nico has reached an age where she's naturally beginning to grow in her own direction, and her own development matters more to her than anyone else's. I don't mean that to sound negative; it's a normal part of adolescence, and the crisis that Nico and her family are experiencing just makes it more pronounced. There is growth and development over the course of the summer and the story - for both Nico and her parents - and while I thought the ending was perhaps a little too neat, it was credible. Sometimes "moving on" happens so gradually that we don't realize we've done it until some time later, but sometimes it takes a conscious decision.
While reading Goldengrove, I kept returning to a recent discussion of YA literature. While this has been published and marketed as an adult novel, I think one could make a convincing case for it as young-adult literature. It's thoughtful and beautifully written, and while its themes of grief, loss and developing maturity are serious ones, they're not inappropriate for older high-school students. But if the distinguishing characteristic of YA is "a teenage protagonist," both its narrator and its perspective would seem to make this novel fit within that genre.