Monday, December 22, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #22: Favorite grown-up novel about a teenager

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Goldengrove by Francine Prose (Harper)
(Bonus: Features an independent bookstore!)

This is yet another book that I was motivated to read after hearing the author speak. Francine Prose had the misfortune to be scheduled at McNally Jackson on the same evening as one of the three presidential debates, so the crowd was shockingly sparse for a nationally recognized novelist and essayist. But she was extremely gracious about the situation, and delivered an eloquent talk and reading about her book and surrounding issues.

Goldengrove is actually the name of an independent bookstore in the novel -- a sure-fire way to get me to at least pick it up! (It's also a reference to a wonderful poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins, which I actually memorized as a teenager and have returned to with deepening appreciation as an adult.) The store becomes the refuge of the 13-year-old protagonist during the summer after her adored older sister drowns -- it's owned by her parents, who are grieving in their own way, and the shop offers our heroine both social encounters and solitude. She ultimately finds herself in a dreamy Vertigo-style relationship with her sister's grieving boyfriend, and must navigate her own path out of the fog of memory.

Prose responded to a question from the audience about her 1998 Harper's article about sexism in book reviews by acknowledging that gender disparities still exist in the world of literature. For example, this novel about a 13-year-old girl is getting far less critical attention than Prose's previous one about a male holocaust denier. She attributes this in part to the contemporary sense that novels about teenagers are Young Adult literature (which would knock Huckleberry Finn and Catcher In The Rye and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn and Maggie, Girl of the Streets out of the Real Literature realm), and in part to the adage (which booksellers know) that "girls will read books about boys, but boys won't read books about girls."

Whether or how widely this is true, it would be a terrible shame if it kept readers, adult or teen, away from this novel, which is a highly allusive and sophisticated work of ventriloquism, examining the horrors of loss and misplaced identity through the eyes of a character utterly unlike Prose herself. (Though, as she opines, "we've all been a 13-year-old girl at some point in our lives.) My coworkers agree with the books irresistible merit, and I hope many readers will discover the universal appeal of Prose's most recent work.