Any writer can tell you what it's like to find love. It takes a special talent to deliver -- in words that make you ache with sympathy -- what it's like to lose it.
A pair of new books by two of the nation's most established and talented women novelists render stories of heartbreaking loss with the finest acuity to every ripple of emotion that the newly bereaved mind and soul goes through. The first raw shock of it; the dizzy disbelief; the sense of being a stranger in one's own life, of having lost the thread of one's own story. The anger. The confusion. The feeling that life has skewed so far out of kilter it can never snap back. The sheer lumpen weight of pain that lodges deep inside and refuses to budge.
And then, arriving as a whisper of hope, when least expected or sought, the first faint glimmerings of recovery: of the sense that somehow, things might be bearable again.
Francine Prose's story of loss takes the form of a novel. The primary characters in "Goldengrove" are two sisters, Margaret and Nico, who are four years apart. (At 13 and 17, a chasm.) The sisters believe themselves opposites; like many such sets of siblings, however, they are much more alike than they perceive.
"People told us we looked alike," reflects Nico, the narrator of the story, early in the novel, "but I couldn't see it. Margaret was the beautiful sister, willowy and blonde -- I was the pudgy, awkward sister. I smelled dusty, like a kid."
The novel begins on the hot summer day Margaret and Nico are wrenched apart. They had been rowing a small boat around the lake near their home, dragging their fingers in the water and listening to their moody mother play the piano, faintly in the distance. A conversation about old movies and boyfriends and body image dead-ends. Margaret, bored, dives into the water to swim back to shore, but never reaches land.
In the wake of her older sister's drowning, Nico is shattered -- first, by the tormenting thought that she should have done something to save her sister, and secondly by the knowledge that Margaret had a weak heart, and that she herself shares the same genetic makeup.
Flailing, Nico loses sight of who she is. She starts wearing Margaret's clothing, sleeps in her sister's bedroom, even wrangles ways to be close to Aaron, Margaret's devastated boyfriend. Nico's unraveling -- and rebuilding -- forms the heart of the story that Prose, previously the author of the National Book Award-nominated "Blue Angel" and 14 other books of fiction, tells here, in simple, direct prose, and it is a moving account.
"Goldengrove," in its own quiet way, stakes bold ground among the death narratives familiar to us. There is an echo of "An American Tragedy" here; and, of course, the novel takes its title from the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child," a meditation on mortality and self-awareness which begins in this way:
Margaret, are you grieving/
Over Goldengrove unleaving?/
Leaves, like the things of man, you/
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Hopkins' poem ends with the haunting, gut-wrenching final couplet, "It is the blight man was born for/ It is Margaret you mourn for."
And that is exactly where Prose's novel takes us: to Nico's panicky grappling with her own realization of mortality, and the mirrorlike sheen of it that she glimpses in her sister's cruel, untimely fate.
In the skillful hands of Elizabeth McCracken, grief becomes the thematic current that binds the stories of two births and one death.
McCracken, known for well-regarded novels including "The Giant's House" and "Niagara Falls All Over Again," was 35, successful and single when she met -- in a bookstore, naturally -- the man she would marry. With Jonathan Harvey, McCracken found an enviable life: the two writers traveled incessantly, to campuses and writing workshops in the United States and into various parts of Europe as the mood struck.
Then, in 2005, McCracken learned she was pregnant. The baby boy she delivered in a French hospital in April 2006 was full-term yet stillborn: a total surprise.
What followed was grief and a second pregnancy, immediately; McCracken delivered another baby son -- a healthy one -- a little over one year later.
"An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination" is McCracken's blunt account of those two pregnancies, and what bearing a stillborn child -- an outcome McCracken herself calls hopelessly outdated -- is like.
A writer as tough on herself as she is on others around her, she spares the reader nothing: not the parts of the story that cast her in an unflattering light, not the mental effects of the anguish she endured, not her second-guessings about what she would have done differently to save her child, not even the weirdly funny moments that happened amid the disaster. An anecdote she tells, dryly, about a French nurse, a language barrier and a dwarf must be read to be believed; it had me cackle with laughter, and then look up guiltily to see if anybody had noticed.
"As for me," McCracken writes, "I believe that if there's a God -- and I am as neutral on the subject as is possible -- then the most basic proof of His existence is black humor. What else explains it, that odd, reliable comfort that billows up at the worst moments, like a beautiful sunset woven out of the smoke over a bombed city."
A brave woman baring her pain so that others might glimpse at larger truths. McCracken, in less than 200 pages, takes us places we've probably never been, and brings us back again.
Between her book and Prose's, it makes for a fall rich in reading about the pain of loss, and the subtle beauty lurking in the passage home.
Charity Vogel is a News features reporter.
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir
By Elizabeth McCracken
184 pages, $20
Goldengrove: A novel
By Francine Prose
275 pages, $25