You know what I'm afraid of? I'm afraid of both overselling and underselling this book. I loved, loved, loved it--LOVED it--and I'm not sure that's saying enough. But I'd hate to get anyone's expectations too high and then approach it more critically than I did. I went into it with some curiosity, having read only a few of Lauren Groff's short stories and liking them, but not at all sure I'd like the subject matter.
Arcadia is the name of a commune of sorts, in upstate New York in the 1970s. The story is told from Bit's point of view. Bit was born in the early days of the commune to Handy and Hannah. His parents are early members and, as time goes on, pivotal members; Handy is (as his name implies) a hands-on guy who's critical to the building and maintaining of the complex. Hannah struggles with depression, especially in winter, but when she's able to cope, she contributes heavily too.
For Bit, it's a wonderful childhood, with lots of freedom from rules and restrictions, and with an education that's eclectic and not always practical. He's aware there are problems; bickering amongst the adults, lack of food, and eventually power struggles and a rising population of people who don't contribute in any way. But for a child, it's home, and it's family.
It's not much of a spoiler to say the commune doesn't survive. From the get-go, the reader can see that it can't possibly make it, for the same reasons most communes (if not all) of the '70s died off. But how can a child of that time and that place survive the world outside? That's the real story of Arcadia--both how he grew up in Arcadia, and how he learned to cope outside of it.
The Washington Post's Ron Charles makes a good case for this being the story of Paradise Lost. He also notes feeling the way I did while reading: fear that Groff was going to screw this up. Time after time, I found myself almost holding my breath, thinking: oh, she's not going to do *that* or go *there*, is she? And she did do that and go there, and she made it work. And the whole time she was confidently doing what she needed to do, she did it with beautiful writing, poetic but very organic (no pun intended). There's been some discussion over at the Tournament of Books about so-called "MFA writing" and how hard it is to define. This book is the anti-MFA-writing book. It's wonderfully written and crafted, but never feels like it was workshopped in any way.
In fact, this is a very rare book for me in two ways: one, it actually gave me a lump in my throat more than once. I don't tend to react that way to books, no matter how sad or tragic. I need more visual cues than that (say, the opening montage of the movie Up) for tears. But Groff drew them out of me. There's a layer of sadness running through this book, entirely earned. I cared so much about Bit and his family, no matter how flawed or eccentric they seemed to be, and when things didn't go well, it hurt.
The other thing? And this is borderline miraculous for me--Gross doesn't use quotation marks in the dialogue, and I didn't mind. Lack of quotation marks is usually one of my major peeves, but it worked for me. I was slightly annoyed at first when I realized she was not going to use them, but eventually, it came to feel right--like it added a slight remove for the reader, as if I was not part of the action, but at the next booth, listening in. And that was perfect for the story. Any closer in, I would have been seriously depressed at various points.
Which is not to say it's a depressing book. Not overall. Just some sad points.
And oh, the writing:
"Sharon smoothes down Grete's fine white hair, and Bit sees with a pang that he'd forgotten again to brush it this morning. Grete is a dandelion gone to spore."
"For a few breaths he forgets himself in the swim of nature around him. Its rhythm is so different from Bit's human own, both more nervous and more patient. He sees a bug that is smaller than a period on a page. He sees the sky, bigger than all that's in his head. An overwhelm from two directions, vast and tiny, together."
All kinds of stars and thumbs up for this one. Now I've finally got to get that copy of Monsters of Templeton that's been languishing on my shelves for too long and finally read it.
My thanks to Hyperion Books for sending me a review copy.