"Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?"
That's 19th-century English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his poem "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child."
Francine Prose uses the poem as the epigraph of her 15th novel, "Goldengrove" (Harper, 288 pages, $24.95), Margaret is a daughter at the center of the book, Goldengrove is the bookstore owned by the girl's family, and grief over the girl's death is the book's obsession.
Think of "Cold Mountain" and "The Odyssey." The canonical is supposed to lend highbrow credibility to the contemporary, and the contemporary often needs all the literary street cred it can borrow and steal.
That's true in "Goldengrove," which feels like a bid by Prose to hit the sweet spot between pop appeal and literary respectability.
It's not giving anything away to mention Margaret's death, which happens early in the book. Prose's project is not a portrait of Margaret, but of her family's unraveling in the wake of her death. Margaret is a poet, a singer, "willowy and blond" with an edgy boyfriend and a secret life, idealized by her younger sister, "pudgy, awkward" Nico.
"The lake breeze carried her perfect smell," Nico, the narrator, recalls. "She smelled like cookies baking. ... I still smelled dusty, like a kid."
When Margaret sang a standard such as "My Funny Valentine," Nico says, "it was always pure sex. When she sang, 'Stay little valentine, stay,' it sounded like honey, like grown-up female code-speak for 'Please, have sex with me, please.' ...
"Didn't it cross [the audience's] minds that she could never have sung it that way unless she was having sex with her boyfriend, Aaron?"
At its best and most interesting, "Goldengrove" is a fairly creepy -- but relatively painless -- exploration of sex and the adolescent girl. It's one thing to acknowledge the sexuality of Margaret and Aaron, two young adults on their way to college. It's another to imagine a similar relationship between Aaron and the 13-year-old Nico.
Don't ever be anyone's "mirror," her mother tells Nico. But a mirror image of her older sister she increasingly becomes, bidding both for male attention and closeness to the sister she so admired. Aaron encourages the modeling, requesting Nico go to places he used to frequent with her sister, wear her clothing, watch the old movies that they used to watch.
It sounds bad. It is, but I can't help wondering what "Goldengrove" might have been in the hands of a more difficult and dangerous writer. Something more fearful and terrible and less tasteful.
Still, for all its calculated and easy pop appeal, "Goldengrove" doesn't feel churned out. Prose's gift for characterization and voice is tremendous, and one needs to see only how Nico's voice matures at the end, evolving in a mere 10 pages, as times moves to the present tense and the story rapidly concludes.
It's just that it's a decidedly unchallenging and unthreatening book: smooth and brisk and easy and tailored for interstitial airport time. There's undoubtedly a movie in this one. Kevin Costner, Patricia Clarkson and Dakota Fanning: You're on notice. Pick up the phone when it rings.
Eric Hanson is a former Star Tribune reporter.