IN 1976, a novel called "Ordinary People" by an unknown author named Judith Guest became a surprise bestseller. Soon adapted into a popular movie, the book was about the meltdown of a seemingly perfect upper-middle-class family after the beloved older son died in a boating accident, nearly sinking his younger brother with a raging case of survivor guilt.
Francine Prose's 15th book of fiction, "Goldengrove," also concerns the overwhelming grief that washes over a family after the watery death of its oldest child. But Prose's focus is less about the psychological repercussions of the tragedy than about the passing of youth and innocence that is a tragic fact of human existence.
"Goldengrove's" touchstone is the challenging Gerard Manley Hopkins poem "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child." In the words of one character, this poem reflects on "Fleeting youth, mortality, time, age, innocence, death -- the whole metaphysical enchilada."
"Spring and Fall" begins with a question, "Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?," then moves into reassurance, "Ah! as the heart grows older / It will come to such sights colder," before closing philosophically: "It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for."
Prose's characters, as conveyed through the perspective of the surviving child as she looks back from adulthood on the terrible summer when she was 13, are not ordinary people. The parents are artsy, grown-up hippies who live year-round with their two teenage daughters in a lakeside former summer home near Albany, N.Y.
Henry and Daisy (this is a first-name-only novel) pursue diminished versions of their earlier ambitions: Henry is a small-town bookseller who named his store Goldengrove and his oldest daughter Margaret -- "What the hell were we thinking?" he wonders after her death. He still hopes to write a book -- about the end of the world, no less. Daisy, once an aspiring pianist, writes liner notes for classical CDs but continues to bang away on her piano, trying to get Chopin right.
Their younger daughter Nico -- whom they named, bizarrely, after the former Velvet Underground singer -- begins elegiacally, "When I think of that time. . . ."
It's a subtle tipoff that years have passed between the events and the telling. Like the many allusions to Hopkins' poem, this is tricky to pull off, for until the very end, Prose hews closely to Nico's adolescent perspective. When her observations and behavior seem too mature for her age, we have to remind ourselves -- since Prose doesn't -- that the Nico recalling this story is much older.
The novel opens in the spring, shortly after Margaret has wowed everyone at the high school Senior Show with a sultry performance of "My Funny Valentine." In the fall, she is scheduled to head off to Oberlin to study vocal music on full scholarship.
But on a May Sunday, she shatters more than just the glassiness of Mirror Lake when she dies after a literally heart-stopping plunge off the rowboat in which she and Nico have been drifting and chatting.
At 13, Nico is still defining herself in contrast to her sister. "I would never be poetic and beautiful like Margaret. I would never find a boy to call me his funny valentine," she comments.
She is the more literal, less creative member of the family, "Miss One-Thing-After-the-Next," who "always wanted to know what everything meant." She loves science, and worries about the fate of the planet.
With a dazzling mix of directness and metaphor, Prose captures the centrifugal and isolating force of grief that spins Nico apart from her parents just when she needs them most. Suffering from the weight of being the "Only Remaining Child," she tries to avoid everything that reminds her of Margaret, including the lake.
Nico escapes the terror of empty summer days by helping out in her father's bookstore while he works in a back office writing about "the apocalypse and not the ragged hole that one death could rip in a few fragile lives." More dangerously, she seeks solace with Margaret's high school boyfriend, an artist named Aaron whom her parents never trusted.
Aaron creepily attempts to resurrect his lost love by encouraging Nico to wear her dead sister's clothes and vanilla scent, watch her favorite movies and eat her favorite pistachio ice cream. "I felt as if I, and not Margaret, was the one who had disappeared, or as if I'd become a petri dish in which my sister was growing," she tells us, one of many instances in which her self-awareness belies her purported age.
Although Prose exquisitely renders her characters' grief and bafflement, "Goldengrove" is a bit of a puzzle, an earnestly elegiac misfit among the author's sassier, satirical novels -- until, that is, Nico's warped relationship with Aaron develops. Only then do we recognize the theme of inappropriate love that Prose skewered so successfully in her 2000 sendup of on-campus political correctness, "Blue Angel," or the interest in twisted behavior she displayed in 2005's "A Changed Man."
But these aren't her main concerns in this quieter, less bold novel. On its smooth, shiny surface, "Goldengrove" is a simple tale of a haunted summer of profound, multi-pronged loss. Prose, however, transforms what in a lesser writer's hands could be mawkish into a moving meditation on how, out of the painful passing of innocence and youth, sexuality and identity can miraculously emerge.
Heller McAlpin reviews books for a variety of publications, including Newsday and the Boston Globe.