Arcadia by Lauren Groff

In Lauren Groff’s magnificent novel, Arcadia is a hippie commune. We follow the story through Bit (“little bit of a hippie”), first child born as the small community settles on its homeland soil, before they rebuild the old mansion in which all will live together, while every family still lives in buses. Bit is a sensitive, quiet, observant child. The story is broken into four segments, four slices of Bit’s life. First he is five, newly aware of the world, freshly injured yet concerned for his mother, Hannah, who sinks annually in a winter depression, aware also of the strength of heart and purpose of his father, Abe. Next, Bit is fourteen, now aware of his own body, conscious of the people around him, the overcrowding of Arcadia, the loose social structure beset by wild recklessness and social turmoil. Then we see Bit as an adult, now living in the city, as close an approximation of the hive of commune life as he can find, raising his own daughter. Last we are with Bit and his teenage daughter as he struggles to cope with his aging parents back in the place where he grew up. In a nice symmetry of sections Bit’s daughter is five and fourteen in the final segments just as Bit was five and fourteen in the first segments. In this, Lauren Groff’s second novel after Monsters of Templeton, the burgeoning talent dazzles with literary mastery. She is adept at capturing the intimate, the sacred moments of life and awakening, Bit’s compassionate view of his parents, and his sense of self as a member of the community, his realization that the power of books is not just the text but the people behind each tale—their lives reflected in their stories. My only familiarity with communes are the stories told by Ina May Gaskin about life on the Farm in her book Spiritual Midwifery, and Arcadia has the same tone and feel—the reliance on hard work, the toil and selflessness, the joy of sharing and building lives together, the pitfalls of growing too large. Groff’s novel Arcadia is suffused with bright, piercing descriptions and emotions that can turn on the knife’s edge of a word. Her nuanced and subtle writing demonstrates that for Bit and the readers, family and community are not just places but the people we keep in our hearts.

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