Arcadia by Lauren Groff; 2012
Laura Groff’s Arcadia opens with an early memory of Ridley “Bit” Stone, his mother goddess-like in a pastoral landscape, washing linens in a river. Bit is introduced as a five-year-old child of the utopian commune called Arcadia, founded in the early 197os in upstate New York. Bit is the first child born in Arcadia, and we see the commune develop, thrive, and eventually collapse through his eyes. The novel is composed of four parts, with leaps of several years between them, as we follow Bit through his life in Arcadia, and eventually outside of it. Among the Arcadians, we meet Hannah and Abe, Bit’s parents; Handy, Arcadia’s charismatic leader and likely charlatan; Astrid and Helle, Handy’s imposing Scandinavian wife and beautiful, troubled daughter. The book ends in 2018 in a future that we can see with little effort, and Bit’s life moves from utopia to near-apocalypse. It’s a heartbreaking but rewarding read.
This is the first book that I’ve read in a long time where I felt completely consumed by its world. Arcadia and the Arcadians felt entirely real to me. Despite how it might sound, this isn’t a book about hippies, but a book about finding yourself, meaning, and beauty through community and nature. Arcadia is loosely positioned beside the literary tradition of humanism and moralism; there is a genuine goodness in the Arcadians and they understand themselves through their connections to one another and the beauty of the world around them. And, ultimately, Arcadia teaches its populace how to live.
Pay attention, he thinks. Not to the grand gesture, but to the passing breath.
Groff’s writing is truly spectacular, her sentences lush and lyrical. It’s worth it to read Arcadia just to see her pair words together. There are hints in Arcadia of what was to come with Fates and Furies: a bud of female fury born in Hannah later in life; Greek mythology-inspired; shifting perspectives. I love to be able to see an author develop his/her ideas from book to book. I’m dying to jump into her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, but I think I’ll save that one for a future treat.