Francine Prose's stunningly beautiful but heart-wrenching new novel takes its title from the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child."
The poem offers experience as an antidote to grief. It comforts those who are suffering by suggesting that we may understand death more as we gain experience with it.
By Francine Prose
Prose's novel eloquently demonstrates that there's no sense practicing loss. Grief, at any stage in life, is simply unbearable.
Told from the point of view of 13-year-old Nico, who has been named after a German rock singer by her hyper-lefty and ultra cool parents, the novel opens with an idyllic boat trip across a pristine upstate New York lake with Nico and her adored older sister, Margaret, who drowns during that idyll.
Margaret is the light as well as the character of the family. She sings old-fashioned love songs and quotes World War II movies. She shops in junk shops and doesn't care that her quirky personality makes her stand out in high school.
She and her boyfriend "were the glamour couple, their radiance outshone the feeble gleam of the football captain and his slutty cheerleader girlfriend. They were superheroes with superpowers."
Nico is observant and savvy but already wistful even before her sister drowns as the result of a undiagnosed heart ailment:
"I already knew that you couldn't live in a family without a lie or two as a cushion between you and the people you love."
Margaret's death sets off a series of lies the family members formulate as their lives unravel under the tremendous weight of loss and sorrow.
Nico's mother tries the New Age route with yoga and therapy, finally seeking solace in heavy handed self-medicating.
Her father becomes consumed with finishing his book about religious sects who wrongly anticipated their messiah and salvation only to be perplexed when life as they knew it didn't end.
Nico enters a period of limbo; her days are consumed with memories of her sister. She longs to have her back. Margaret's death feels physically heavy; she's aware how much it defines who she has become.
She spends the afternoons working at her father's bookstore where the customers offer her some distractions.
"I sensed that they were looking at me but seeing themselves -- their formers selves -- right after a loved one died. They'd tell me their intimate stories in an urgent confiding tone. When they wept, I cried too."
Margaret's boyfriend, Aaron, comes into the bookstore with the idea that together they can help one another forget Margaret. His game is deceptive and perverse. He slowly entangles Nico into his own obsessions until she realizes the danger she's in and her own need for survival kicks in.
Nico understands that accepting death is not a social or shared experience, but a personal struggle, one that simply must be endured.
Prose's narrative could have easily slipped into sentimentality but her characters are too individually drawn, and much too complex to fall into that trap. This is an emotional book but so achingly real that its sadness never overshadows the power of the story it conveys.
Sharon Dilworth writes books and teaches writing at Carnegie Mellon University.