Arcadia by Lauren Groff caught my attention because, well… hippies! Yay! I love hippies and what they stand/stood for: love, peace, harmony, unity, freedom, understanding. Occasionally I imagine myself as born a couple of decades too late… I feel like I could have belonged quite nicely in the late 1960s and 1970s. But, my parents are from that era, and they’ve passed on those hippie sentiments to me, for which I’m grateful.
Arcadia is the story of Bit, a boy born on the hippie commune Arcadia in upstate New York. A deeply sensitive child growing up on the commune, Bit is afraid to venture to the “Outside” and refuses all opportunities to do so. Eventually, Arcadia collapses—the idealism that started the commune is broken by leadership and personality conflicts, dwindling resources, and a ballooning population. Its inhabitants leave and begin new lives in the “real world,” including Bit and his charismatic yet troubled parents.
I didn’t know much more than just that when I started the book, and I feel like I had a better experience with less lofty expectations. This is also my first read of anything by Groff so I can’t compare to her first novel, which now I’ve heard is starkly different from Arcadia.
I thought Groff’s floaty, lyrical prose worked for this subject matter, especially in the first half of the book, on the commune. The first half felt dream-like, almost, reading it through a lens of Bit’s sheltered innocence. Bit is a sweet and tender child, but maybe a little too soft and delicate, especially in the second half when he is an adult living in the city. He looks back at Arcadia with rose-colored glasses, and feels an earnest need to protect and be a caregiver to everyone in his life. Bit’s parents, Hannah and Abe, are colorful, multi-dimensional characters, and I liked them the best. This book has so many characters, but Groff skillfully gives them believable life and individuality, usually with only a few pointed details. I really disliked Helle, though, the girl Bit inexplicably adores but also disdains sometimes.
The second half of the book possibly gets a little big for its britches. I don’t want to give anything away… but it becomes rather grim and places the characters in more modern and worrisome circumstances. I was startled by the large jump in time from the first half of the book to the second, making the last part feel somewhat like an epilogue. I would have liked to read more about Bit’s transitional years growing accustomed to city life.
Still, I loved Arcadia. I wish I had read this when I wasn’t so busy and could devote more large chunks of time to it. Finding oneself is a strong theme, and it was interesting to learn about the directions of everyone’s lives after leaving Arcadia. I thought the book was beautifully written, tinged with a sadness throughout, and allows space for contemplating happiness, community, society (utopian, dystopian, and our own today), and family.
Read from November 12 to 28, 2012.