"GOLDENGROVE," by Francine Prose, Harper, 288 pages, $24.95

Adolescence is hard enough without having to deal with a family tragedy. Compounded by raging hormones and a desire to be an adult, the pain of a major loss can become crippling.

National Book Award finalist Francine Prose delves into this complicated situation in her latest novel, "Goldengrove."

Prose follows Nico, the younger daughter in a seemingly perfect family, through a life-changing summer when she is 13.

Nico adores her sister, Margaret, a talented musician who is getting ready to leave for college. Margaret confides in Nico, sharing some of her most important secrets, including regular rendezvous with a boyfriend their parents don't approve of.

One devastating Sunday afternoon, Margaret dives into the lake near their home and disappears. Nico is the last person to see her alive, and she is riddled with guilt.

After Margaret's death, Nico's family starts to fall apart. Her mother begins to self-medicate with a mix of prescription drugs and alcohol. Her father, who owns a bookstore, refuses to talk with customers, instead spending his days locked in the backroom doing research for a book he's writing on the end of the world.

Nico's parents tend to her basic needs, but they don't really see her. Finding no solace at home, Nico turns to the one person who can really understand her pain — Aaron, Margaret's artist boyfriend.

Aaron has also struggled since the accident. He burns all his paintings and refuses to do anything that reminds him of Margaret — that is until he and Nico plan clandestine meetings.

Together, Nico and Aaron retrace their most intimate moments with Margaret — watching black-and-white movies, eating pistachio ice cream and listening to certain music.

Nico finds herself attracted to Aaron. She is both seduced and confused by his attention and soon finds herself willing to do whatever he asks, even wearing Margaret's favorite scent and clothing.

"Goldengrove," taken from a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins, is a sorrowful coming-of-age story that examines how quickly a family dynamic can change with one event. A seemingly stable unit can crumble into something almost indistinguishable.

Nico's introduction into adult situations is accelerated and scary, and Prose doesn't handle the topic with kid gloves. As Nico's relationship with Aaron progresses, her thoughts about physical intimacy run rampant.

Prose expertly conveys the new-found sexual desires teenagers experience as they grow into adults. The reader recognizes how unprepared Nico is for such a big step but can only sit back and uncomfortably watch as the teen learns what she really wants.

Prose creates characters with real flaws that make the reader both love and hate them. It is easy to put oneself in the position of any of the players and follow the path to where they are.

Emotionally gripping and sometimes disturbing, "Goldengrove" is a thoughtful and painfully honest look at how people deal with grief and how they can eventually grow from it.


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