Thursday, March 29, 2012

REVIEW: Arcadia, by Lauren Groff

Arcadia, by Lauren Groff. Published 2012 by Voice. Literary Fiction.

Arcadia, writer Lauren Groff's latest after the critically acclaimed The Monsters of Templeton, tells the story of Ridley "Bit" Stone, child of hippies and born on a commune. What a lovely book it is.

The book follows Bit's life from early childhood through midlife. When he's a child, life on the commune of Arcadia is young, too, and fresh and exciting. He's the adored only child of Hannah and Abe, idealists who've helped found a community based on high ideals. Hippies living in tents and mobile homes have found a large house in which to make a home; Arcadia House is an impossibly large and rambling mansion which the community transforms. Tasks are divided, a thin leadership structure is developed and over time the community takes shape.

But as it takes shape, and as Bit grows, chaos and interpersonal conflict eat away at the community like mold. Arcadia becomes famous and attracts more people than it can handle, people who don't share the founders' ideals. And the founders themselves grow apart as power struggles and conflicts over drugs and money create impossible rifts. Heretofore idyllic-seeming families fracture; the long-term effects of the lifestyle prove themselves to be not as wholesome as was hoped. Bit is in love his entire life with the mercurial, damaged Helle, daughter of Arcadia's leader Handy, himself unstable, charismatic and a key player in the community's dissolution.

Bit's life orbits around three women- Helle, his mother, and later his daughter Grete. One will disappear, one will decline, and one will flourish but all are the walking wounded, refugees in one way or another from Arcadia. Groff writes with great beauty and grace about the life of this place and the people who make it come alive. The book is lyrical and poetic but Groff doesn't get lost in mere style. She uses her beautiful writing to create unique, fresh characters. Sometimes I had to remind myself that I was reading fiction so well does she bring these people to life. She renders the setting vividly as well, both in terms of the physical descriptions and the idealism that drives the Arcadians to work so hard on their fragile community. But this is a novel that will stay with me for a long time pondering the trajectories both sad and triumphant of its members and its heirs. Arcadia is a must-read for literary fiction readers this spring and summer. I hope you get a chance to check it out!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from HarperCollins.