Thirty-three-year-old Lauren Groff calls herself a “soft-label” Luddite. She thinks the best decision she and her husband made when they moved to Gainesville, Florida, was not to own a television.
Arcadia is the highly anticipated second novel by Lauren Groff, following her critically acclaimed novel The Monsters of Templeton. This promising and poignant story is centered on a small sub-culture population seeking to create a utopian society in the late 1960’s.
In the wooded fields of western New York, a lot of land with a decaying mansion in Arcadia is established by an eccentric man named Handy, along with a caravan of hippies who regard him as their leader. As this land is being built upon, we meet Ridley Sorrel Stone, also known as “Bit”, the first child to be born on this commune, so-called for his small stature. We are first introduced to Bit in the beginning of the novel, as he recalls a memory while in his mother’s womb. Although this suggestion could be rather arduous, it sets the stage for the novel. Arcadia takes place over the course of three generations. It follows Bit’s development as well as his emotional growth based upon the mores of his communal family, and the struggles he experiences later in life as he attempts to assimilate into society after things fall apart on the commune.
There are many reflective and introspective moments of the story as many of the characters strive to reach their idealistic goals. However, reality is inevitable. The communal family breaks up and Bit has to learn to cope in a world that he has never known. The values instilled in him from birth and his struggle to reconcile the ideal from the real is present throughout the course of the novel. The reader observes the life of Bit as he ages– from the womb, to an infant, to a boy, to a man, a husband, and then a father himself.
There are many magnificent elements that Groff utilizes. The book is divided into three parts, City of the Sun, Heliopolis and Isles of the Blest. Each part is metaphorically symbolic of its representative title.
As a child, Bit intentionally withholds speaking until he somewhat older; the reader gets to know Bit through his thoughts. At times there was some confusion as to who the speaker was, as Groff intentionally omits any quotation marks.
As Bit explores the mansion, he comes across an old leather bound book of Grimm’s fairytales in which he finds some solace. When Bit is older, it is quite touching to see how he deals with the aging of his parents, and their subsequent death. There is also a concurrent love story between Bit and Helle, adding layers to the plot.
Arcadia was far from perfect, and in the end the Arcadians were unable to sustain themselves. It became inevitable that Bit would have to enter the real world. How the values of Arcadia shaped him into a man of intelligence, compassion and gentleness is presented. The way he adapts to living in a world which he sees as an increasingly imperfect, dark, scary, and threatening world, is also explored.
With Arcadia, Groff presents a beautifully written and imaginative world abounding with realistic and believable characterizations. Bit’s character makes every effort to find meaning, and comfort in a world that he continues to seek to understand, and yet in the end, he is at peace with himself despite the faults he sees in the world. “The world is sometimes too much for Bit, too full of terror and beauty.”
The beginning of Arcadia is markedly different from its ending. There is a plethora of philosophical themes interwoven into the novel and Groff’s talent is exquisitely displayed. The paralleled symbolism of Bit’s profession as a photographer and the growth of his conscious mind are brilliant. Groff leaves the reader with many meandering thoughts to ponder. Arcadia has been named on the March 2012 Indie Next List. There cover-art is somewhat psychedelic lending additional realism to the time period in which the majority of the story takes place. I give Arcadia 5 stars and highly recommend it to those who enjoy literary fiction.