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Audiobooks: Francine Prose's "Goldengrove"

I'm a sucker for coming-of-age novels, perhaps because, at age 51, I'm still stuck in my own much, much, much delayed adolescence. If you don't believe me, ask my mother.

So I gobbled up the audio book version of Francine Prose's Goldengrove. I listen to books on tape in my car, and more often than I'd like to admit, I'd arrive home after work, switch off the engine, but leave the CD player running. I'd delay going inside for 30 to 40 minutes until I reached a natural break in the story. Mamie Gummer, who narrates this audio book, is Meryl Streep's daughter. She demonstrates here that she inherited at least some of her famous Mom's acting chops.

Goldengrove tells the story of 13-year-old Nico the summer she loses her adored older sister, Margaret, in a freak swimming accident. The girls' bookstore-owner Dad and musician Mom are besieged by their own grief, and leave Nico to fend for herself. As the summer progresses, she is increasingly drawn to Margaret's 17-year-old boyfriend, a charismatic but moody artist named Aaron.

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It's to Prose's credit that as the pair's relationship turns creepy, the reader never loses sympathy for either teen. They're two lost children, trying to survive however they can. The adults in their lives are either utterly oblivious to their offspring's pain or are unable to help them. The author and actress collaborate to create a pitch-perfect portrayal of a 13-year-old girl. They get just right Nico's adolescent machinations, and the guilty, helpless love she feels for both parents.

Nico will lie at the drop of a hat to get her own way. At the same time, she is acutely aware of how vulnerable her mother and father are. She will do anything in her power to protect the adults who should be protecting her.

The audio book has a few flaws. Gummer has a small voice that has a tendency to drop off at the ends of sentences, so at times I had to turn up the volume full throttle so as to not miss crucial plot developments. Someone (the director, the sound mixer?) should have caught and taken care of this problem.

Finally, I'm not sure Prose knows how to end this story, how to create for her listeners a sense of closure. The final chapter, in which Nico ages 30 years in about as many lines, feels both rushed and tacked on. The author wants to reassure her audience that Nico will survive her ordeal intact, but I wasn't persuaded by the "the sun will rise again, and life goes on" feel to the ending.

I also wished Prose had revealed something of Aaron's eventual fate. After her readers and listeners have spent hours inside the head of this troubled young man, it doesn't seem sporting for the author to abandon him without so much as a farewell.

The book takes its name from a strange, mysterious, and utterly gorgeous poem called Spring and Fall: to a Young Child, that was written by Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1918. You can read it here.

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