Francine Prose has written one of the handiest guides to understanding literature I’ve read in recent years, Reading Like a Writer. In it, she spends a lot of time discussing the work that specific words do—ratcheting up the tension, easing it down, conveying fear or joy. In this bit from Prose’s new novel, Goldengrove, she has to manage a slew of emotions simultaneously. The narrator is a 13-year-old girl, Nico, whose older sister has recently died; Nico is sitting in a restaurant with her father, trying not to discuss it, even though it’s clearly Topic A. To get that idea over without dialogue here are food metaphors aplenty; the viscera and textures she describes echo her anxieties, and many of the words could come straight from a cookbook:
As we polished off the Nibble Corner’s buttery, warm, melted cheese, my father and I concentrated on our sandwiches as if we were teasing the flesh from some lethally bony fish. I chewed slowly and without stopping, to keep my face from going slack and collapsing like a pudding. For my parents’ sake, I was trying to act remotely sane. And in a way, I was. I could get through an hour or so without thinking about my sister. Then a wave of sorrow would crash into me and knock me flat.
Sometimes, when the silence thickened, my father would ask me what I was reading.
Living with Heart Disease. Surviving Loss. The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
“Nothing much,” I’d say. In the old days, he might have kept asking till I came up with an answer, but now we acted as if the tiniest pressure could shatter our eggshell selves.