The emotional challenges of adolescence are exacerbated by the ordeal of bereavement in Prose’s plaintive novel (A Changed Man, 2005, etc.).
The stage is set in a first chapter that details the relationship between 13-year-old narrator Nico and her beautiful older sister Margaret, a headstrong charmer who channels the auras of romantic movies and popular songs into a vibrant personality that Nico simultaneously adores and despairs of ever equaling. Then the unthinkable happens. Margaret perishes in a boating accident (on a lake in upstate New York), and Nico is thrust into the maelstrom of grief that afflicts her sister’s artistically gifted boyfriend Aaron, her angry and self-pitying mother and her stoical father (owner of the bookstore in which Nico, while browsing, discovers the limpid Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that gave Margaret her name and—Nico surmises—may have influenced her fate). Though less fully plotted than it might be, this moving novel succeeds by sticking closely to Nico’s stormy emotions, as she explores the newly aroused fears that redefine her relationship with her parents, while learning on the fly to deal with Aaron’s borderline-creepy appropriation of her attention (drawing her into “our hopeless love triangle with the dead”). And Prose gives it a persuasive further dimension in the leitmotif of the historical incident that obsesses Nico’s father: the story of a doomsday cult that anticipated the end of the world and awaited the occurrence on a remote promontory thereafter known as Disappointment Hill. As a lucid and moving chronicle of growing up baffled and challenged, this novel is energized by a thoughtful quality of impertinent wit that sometimes recalls J.D. Salinger in his heyday (though many readers will be reminded even more strongly of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between and Ian McEwan’s contemporary classic Atonement).
Arguably a tad too wistfully meditative, Prose’s latest novel nevertheless charms and persuades.