28 November 2011

Book (P)Review: Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Let me be frank: I didn't like this book when I first picked it up.  I've been a fan of Lauren Groff's since I read The Monsters of Templeton however many years ago and when I first picked up Arcadia it didn't speak at all to me.  Then I picked it up again a couple of months later when I had less going on in my life and I'm glad that I did.  Groff's writing is amazing, and I wish there was a breakdown of ratings on book review sites like Goodreads similar to what Trip Advisor offers: I'd like to rate it separately for writing, plot, characters, and overall achievement.  But hey, this is my own blog, so I can do what I want!

My issue with this book stems largely from a bizarre distrust of commune-utopian communities and the fact that I'm not aware of any that were actually successful and true to the ideals upon which they were founded.  Despite the forward thinking and the intentions of true gender equality that most of these communities seem to be founded on, they inevitably seem to unravel to the point where women get the shit end of the stick.  Every. Single. Time.

Arcadia wasn't much different in that sense, but as this story follows Ridley "Bit" Stone, first child born in Arcadia, through his childhood, adolescence, and finally middle age (yes there are large gaps), it focuses more on his experience growing up as a sensitive, undersized boy in this alternative lifestyle, living his own particular circle of life, both within Arcadia and in the outside world.

Groff's writing is great, and her character development is just as it should be; that is, they're worthy of all five stars.  I was even surprised by how emotional the last quarter of the book left me, strangely moved by this book's sly spirituality.  I just have a distrust of the narrator, who despite the disbelief expressed by his friends who also grew up in Arcadia, reflects back on those years as golden, conveniently forgetting the poverty, illness, near-starvation, malnutrition, and hallucinogens that scarred their collective experience.

In fact, I think that the UK cover of this book is a better fit for the book's content.  Instead of the psychedelic colors and symbols of metamorphosis and idyllic childhood, we get a waif, solitary and in black & white, not unlike the photos Bit himself is known for exhibiting.  Since Bit's life is mostly lived on the fringes, both within Arcadia and on the Outside, and since he's given to suffer large bouts of debilitating depression and self-imposed muteness, this lone Nature Boy is a far more apt representation of his life.

If you're looking for a book that is chock full of plot, this ain't it.  Arcadia is a book where nothing much happens beyond an ordinary life, albeit an ordinary life outside the boundaries of most readers.  It's quiet and introspective, and like many well-wrought novels, by the time one comes to the end, it feels like a much bigger book than it really is.  With the exception of the constant present tense used in narration (just a personal pet peeve of mine) and an unreliable narrator, I'd say this is a very fine novel indeed--and the moment Groff takes on a more epic, more universal subject and puts all her strengths to bear into writing it, we just might have the first great American novel of the 21st century.

Here are a couple of excerpts that I dog-eared:

"...[Maria] turns away to privately make a four-pointed sign from head to belly to shoulder to shoulder, which Bit mimics again and again from behind a tree, loving the gesture's solemnity.  He doesn't want others to see.  Superstition, snorts Hannah when the others talk about God. Though people here have private rituals, Muhammad kneeling on a bit of carpet during the day, Jewish Seders and Christmas trees, religion here is seen much like hygiene: a personal concern best kept in check so as to not bully the others (41)."

And a semi-spoilery one:

"For a moment [Bit] he has felt relief at the idea of Helle being an enemy of the state, that she hadn't been abducted, sold into slavery, raped, murdered; that she hadn't fallen off the wagon and passed out in some ugly motel room, the needle in her vein under the rubber thong. Worse than those awful possibilities is the thought that she walked away in health and sanity.  And what hurts him most is the gleam of peace he'd had: he would rather imagine his wife tortured in a secret cell than imagine she chose to not love them anymore (192)."

This book is forthcoming from Voice in March 2012 and I read an Advance Reading Edition courtesy of my wonderful sales rep. 


  1. Hmm...tricky response to this post. This was on my TBR list on Goodreads, and though I loved your review of it, now I have to admit, it really doesn't sound like my type of read. But, I still think that speaks to your great review, for having me figure something out before I spend time trying to get into it.

  2. This was really helpful for me to read -- I just got an ARC of this and thumbed through it and felt pretty 'eh' on it. I, too, am bitter toward communes for the way women are failed (and often children), so anyone romanticizing it fails in my book. Plus, I wasn't wild about MoT. Still, your comments and observations about what worked have me excited to give this a thorough read, so thanks!

  3. Hmmmm. I did indeed like The Monsters of Templeton, despite knowing nothing about JFC, so I miight give this a try.

  4. No, I think I will keep this one on my TBR list in spite of the story setting. Thanks for the p/review.

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