Published by Hyperion on Jan. 2012
Lauren Groff’s second novel, Arcadia, tells the story of the first child born to Arcadia, a hippie commune in upstate New York. As Bit, so nicknamed for being born the “littlest bit of a hippie ever made,” grows from a tiny baby into a sensitive teenager, the commune grows from a tight-knit group of 50 Free People into a deeply flawed, hierarchical society including teenage runaways and strung-out Trippies. When the commune falls apart when Bit is 14, he and his mother, Hannah, and father, Abe, must adjust to life in the outside world.
The story is told in three parts: Bit’s early childhood, as the commune is struggling to build a home for all of its members; Bit’s early teenage years, as the commune is crumbling under the weight of too many mouths to feed and the ever-deepening rifts between its leaders; and Bit’s middle age, as he raises a daughter on his own and tries to heal the pain of those around him.
I found Arcadia to be slow to start out. I was drawn to the book because of the commune angle, but the portion of the book taking place in the commune was actually the least interesting to me. Although Arcadians smoke pot and don’t always wear clothes, they aren’t really that different from Outsiders. Arcadia has the same idealists, hypocrites, depressives, and rebellious teenagers embarrassed by their parents as the rest of the world.
However, once Bit grows up and rejoins the world, the story that unfolds is truly beautiful. As he grows he must accept the mistakes his parents made and their inherent human frailty. It is such a human trait to seek a better life, a better way of living; the Free People strove for fulfillment by founding a communal society on hard work and equality. However, their pure vision was corrupted by their own flaws. This, combined with the lack of balance between freedom and community, caused the commune to collapse. Even during Arcadia’s glory days the children were always hungry, cold, without enough clothes, and under the care of parents who allowed them to drink acid-spiked alcohol. Despite their parents’ best (although deeply flawed) intentions, these children have a lot of difficulties to overcome as they grow up.
In the end, it wasn’t the commune element that drew me into this book; it was Bit, a steady, small, sensitive character trying to pull his life together and make it through the suffering he has endured, both on and off the commune, who captured my heart and imagination. It was his loss and his care for those around him that drew me in, his relationship with his parents and his daughter. I don’t want to give anything away, but certain pages in this book made me tear up, and I hardly ever cry when reading. Bit’s urge to put others first and heal their emotional wounds was very touching, and there were some incredibly heartrending passages later in the book that pulled all of my heartstrings.
I really liked Groff’s clear, evocative writing in this book. The pages of Arcadia are populated with such lovely gems of prose as this description of a winter morning during Bit’s childhood:
“The icicles in the window are shot with such red light of dawn that Bit goes barefoot over the snow to pull one with his hand. Inside again, he licks it down to nothing, eating winter itself, the captured woodsmoke and sleepy hush and aching clean of ice.”
and this passage, in which adult Bit reflects upon the deep connection that remains between himself and the children he grew up with in Arcadia:
“He thinks of the rotten parachutes they’d played with as kids in Arcadia: they hurtle through life aging unimaginably fast, but each grasps a silken edge of memory that billows between them and softens the long fall.”
Besides the slow beginning, the only thing that bothered me about this book was that dialog is set off by commas rather than quotation marks. It wasn’t a big deal, but it was occasionally momentarily confusing about whether a character was talking or not.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book. It touched me in ways I wasn’t expecting and left me quietly contemplating human frailty, the ways parents fail their children despite their best intentions, and how children must eventually come to understand and forgive their parents’ flaws.