• Lauren Groff
  • Voice
  • 304 pp.

After growing up in a fractured utopian community, a boy ventures into the larger world with all its delights and disappointments

Reviewed by Susana Olague Trapani

To say that Lauren Groff’s second novel, Arcadia, comes with great expectations is something of an understatement. The author’s follow-up to the best-selling and critically acclaimed The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia also comes on the heels of Groff’s various successes in the short story arena. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, Ploughshares and the 2007 and 2010 Best American Short Stories anthologies. Her collection of short stories, Delicate, Edible Birds, was hailed as “innovative,” “unique” and “magical.” Arcadia comes not only with reader anticipation but with the difficult task of clearing a bar set very, very high.

With Arcadia, Groff easily, almost effortlessly, clears that bar. You won’t find a sophomore slump in the novel’s pages; instead, you will find a richly told story of one community’s attempt to create a utopia, and the aftershocks affecting its children and grandchildren years later. At the center of this multi-generational story is Ridley Sorrel Stone — or Bit, as he is called, slight and small throughout life.

The novel begins with Bit’s memory of his parents as they travel somewhat aimlessly across the country in a caravan, accompanied by the people who will soon form a commune in western New York State. Bit is unborn at this point — in his prenatal reality, he witnesses and revels in the harmony and love among the commune members before their arrival. But as in any society, fissures and breaks appear as the group settles and begins to build its paradise.

Bit carries us through the establishment, zenith and downfall of Arcadia, located on 600 acres of land that a commune member’s father signs over to the group. Also located on the land is a century-old mansion in need of major repairs that will become Arcadia House. Inscribed on the lintel of the house is In Arcadia Ego — “Even in Arcadia am I,” where “I” is understood to be death — a quote quickly misconstrued by the group’s leader, Handy, after his wife, Astrid, has translated it. But although Handy and the majority of the group take it to mean that no egos will prevail in Arcadia, death will be ever present, symbolically and literally, throughout Arcadia.

Bit’s mother, Hannah, suffers from a crushing depression, brought on ostensibly by seasonal changes but magnified by a recent loss she’s suffered — one that is devastating but that the commune urges her to forget. Abe, Bit’s father, struggles to keep Arcadia true to its founding ideals, slowly rebelling against Handy as the commune begins to crumble from overcrowding, hunger and the admission of people whose ill intentions seem obvious to most. And Astrid and Handy’s daughter, Helle, fiercely defiant yet undeniably fragile, causes Bit both his greatest happiness and his most profound sorrow.

While Bit’s Arcadia suffers from political infighting, manipulation and abuse of power, he nonetheless adores the commune, carrying fond memories of his time there well into adulthood. Through Bit, we see the loveliness of the Sugarbush, a stand of mature trees that gives the Arcadians maple syrup to sell; through Bit we feel the bite of cold water in the Pond, welcoming the commune’s children into its depths; through Bit we see the organization of the commune, with its Kid Herd, Monkeypower, Bakery and Council of Nine, trying to provide childcare, a workforce, food and democracy to its citizens. Despite its utopian styling, it is society in miniature.

Groff’s writing is remarkably beautiful, especially when conveying Bit’s innocent and often spot-on perceptions of the world around him. When five-year-old Bit explores Arcadia House, his intuition leads him away from danger and into the room where he discovers a copy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales: “There is a black spill beneath the first door, an evil that spreads from the crack. He skips it, creeps on. From behind the second door he hears a sound, a sigh, a whisper, and feels a cold in the metal of the knob so skips it, too.” In Groff’s language is the shuddery remembrance of being a child, tentatively exploring the world and wholeheartedly and rightly trusting a gut reaction. Bit’s hyperawareness is not precociousness; it is simple observation, something that remains with him as he ages.

But like most adults, Bit is better able to ignore his observations. He is still aware and sensitive, although life has dealt blows that trigger self-doubt and the depression inherited from his mother. Set in New York City now and in the near future, the second half of the novel proves right many of Arcadia’s utopian ideals, presenting a sanctuary as disease and climate change begin to exert their influences on the planet’s neglectful population. As with Bit’s purity in childhood, his anxiety in adulthood as he confronts death is artfully rendered, giving dignity and beauty to the hurts that pepper his story: “In a breath, the day is full upon him. Hannah is calling him weakly from her bed, and in her voice he can hear the apology he wasn’t expecting he’d so badly need.”

The book prompts the all-consuming questions about faith, love, family and freedom that many novels ask. But what elevates Arcadia above its contemporaries is the unabashed acceptance of the cycle that is living — devastatingly gorgeous or cruel, life plays out without pause. Groff’s exploration of it is unflinching, but nonetheless she refuses to give way to the cynicism that often arises from looking back or forward; there is value in both the past and the future because it is what creates a person. And here is Groff’s greatest success: We are able to recognize pieces of ourselves in Bit, and we’re encouraged to cherish all that is good and bad about our worlds. In Arcadia, there is no right or wrong to a life being lived.

Arcadia is an anchor for Bit, but even in a seeming paradise, loss is inevitable. Yet the bonds that connect us to those whom we love and who make us feel most alive cannot be severed, and are not limited to one place or one time. In Bit’s story, Groff has succeeded tremendously in mining the idea of utopia, and at demonstrating that, even when ideals fail, humanity still remains. And it is in retaining humanity, despite sorrows and disappointments, that love and joy can be attained. There, within, can be found a utopia, if not an Arcadia.

Susana Olague Trapani is an associate editor of The Independent.

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