Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Arcadia by Lauren Groff: A review

Do you ever have the experience of starting to read a new book and after a few pages you feel as if you've stepped through the looking glass into an alternative universe? And once you've stepped through, you feel like you never want to go back again? That was the way I felt about this book. It had me from the first sentence, "The women in the river, singing." And it didn't let go until that last paragraph:

"He sits. He lets the afternoon sink in. The sweetness of the soil rises to him. A squirrel scolds from high in a tree. The city is still far away, full of good people going home. In this moment that blooms and fades as it passes, he is enough, and all is well in the world."
All has not been well in the world for quite a while as this story ends in the dystopian landscape of pandemics and global warming run amok in 2018. But the story didn't start there.

It started back in the mid 1960s in idyllic upstate New York as a group of idealistic hippies agree to form a commune which they call Arcadia. It is their effort to achieve a utopian society.

As the group comes to the land where Arcadia will be founded, new life is already coming to their group. The first baby born at Arcadia is the son of Abraham and Hannah Stone, surely two of the most loving parents ever described in fiction. The child is a son who is named Ridley but who is forever known as "Bit," as in "Little Bit of a Hippie." He weighs only three pounds at birth and will be small all of his life.

The story of Arcadia unfolds through Bit's eyes. We meet him at five years old. He sees and absorbs everything, although there is much he is unable to understand. What he doesn't know, we as readers also do not know at first. We grow in understanding as Bit grows, through his childhood, into his teenage years.

When Bit is fourteen, it all falls apart. The center can no longer hold at Arcadia. He and his parents leave for the city where he grows to adulthood and where he loses contact for a while with the friends of his youth. But slowly, drawn by the magnet of their common experiences, they drift back together again. The adult Bit winds up with the girl he loved as a child and they have a daughter together.

All of this unfolds bit-by-bit (Pun intended!) in Lauren Groff's lyrical prose. A summary of the action is very prosaic in the telling, but reading it is a luminous experience. She has skillfully drawn us into the mind of Bit and in the raw beauty of her writing, she has taken a community that might have been easily caricatured and has endowed it instead with a kind of universality, with truths that we can all recognize, regardless of our backgrounds.

Moreover, as she expands her story to reach from 1965 all the way to 2018, she manages to imbue the tale with suspense and a rather surprising timelessness. It's not just a small and dated tale of some crazy 1960s hippies. Bit is Everyman, and, for that matter, Everywoman, too. We feel his pain and his joy. We know something of the depression which robs him of his power to act and, also, of the courage that makes him get off his knees and try again. And again.

It really is quite a remarkable read. I was looking at the "Notable Books of 2012" article in The New York Times earlier this week and saw that this was one of the books listed, and I thought, "Oh, yeah, I still have that book on my 'to be read' shelf." I decided it would be the next book I read. Good decision!

2 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this review. Made me want to read the book! :D :D

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    1. I think you would enjoy it, Snap. Bit really is an interesting and sympathetic character.

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