The plot of Francine Prose’s new novel, Goldengrove, has all the trappings of a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie: Set in a small New England town by a shiny lake, the story turns on a teenage girl, Margaret, who drowns, and her younger sister, Nico, who’s 13 years old and has to help herself and her parents muddle through their grief. The writing is curiously free of melodrama, though—the mood is more one of dread and confusion than weepy reconciliation, and Prose’s knack for odd, uncanny detail shows how death does a number on sensible judgment. Nico plays childish games to cope, denying herself music, movies, even the cookies her older sister enjoyed baking. Her parents are no better equipped to deal: Dad is working on a book about the end of days tentatively called Eschatology for Dummies, and Mom drags Nico to get a haircut that worked for Margaret but only makes her look like a “froggy hermaphrodite.” But weirdness doesn’t really ensue until Aaron, Margaret’s artsy boyfriend, begins to insinuate himself into Nico’s life, applying Margaret’s favorite songs, movies, and clothes on her. Indeed, cultural references constantly fly off the story, from Vertigo to Lester Young solos to Italian art books, which speaks to Prose’s engaging, provocative thesis: She’s trying to sort out whether the books and films and records that everybody consumes can help us manage tragedy, or only make us oblivious to it. PROSE DISCUSSES AND SIGNS COPIES OF HER WORK AT 7 P.M. TUESDAY, SEPT. 18, AT POLITICS AND PROSE, 5015 CONNECTICUT AVE. NW. FREE. (202) 364-1919. —Mark Athitakis

More from WCP