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.
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.