Author: Lauren Groff
Originally Published: 2012
Format I Read: Paperback
Publisher: Voice (Hyperion)
I read and reviewed Lauren Groff’s short story collection, Delicate Edible Birds a couple of years ago and fell in love. I fell in love with the way that Groff played with words and ideas. And her characters. So, of course, Arcadia was high on my TBR list, even before it was named a finalist in the 2013 Tournament of Books.
In the fields of western New York State in the 1970s, a few dozen idealists set out to live off the land, founding a commune centered on the grounds of a decaying mansion called Arcadia House. Arcadia follows this romantic utopian dream from its hopeful start through its heyday. Arcadia’s inhabitants include Handy, the charismatic leader; his wife, Astrid, a midwife; Abe, a master carpenter; Hannah, a baker and historian; and Abe and Hannah’s only child, Bit. While Arcadia rises and falls, Bit, too, ages and changes. He falls in love with Helle, Handy’s lovely, troubled daughter. And eventually he must face the world beyond Arcadia.
The book is divided into four sections in which we get a sampling of Bit’s life. In the first section, titled “City of the Sun,” Bit is about four-years-old, and the commune is just getting started. In the second section, titled “Heliopolis,” Bit is about fourteen-years-old, and the commune is past its heyday. In the third section, titled “Isles of the Blest,” Bit is about forty and has a child. In the final section, titled “Garden of Earthly Delights,” Bit is about fifty, and there is a type of plague at work in the world.
Groff does an excellent job in making these jumps in time. While I was always disappointed that I had to leave the story line, I quickly became engrossed in the next section and forgot my disappointment. Bit is an amazing character, and I’m glad he was the one we followed. He is a flawed character, but my heart constantly broke for him. He held Arcadia in his heart, but like all of us, had difficultly implementing his own ideals into his life.
I loved the juxtaposition of the utopian society of Arcadia in the first half of the book, and the almost dystopian society plagued by a super-virus in the last part. Neither one is crafted as extremely as it could have been. Despite the imperfections and, at times, evil, evident throughout this book, I came away with an argument for hope. The human capacity for evil is immense, but our capacity for hope is even larger.
In an interview included in the back of my copy of the book, Groff says this:
“This book was my argument with myself for hope.”
In my view, hope won the argument. What a marvelous book.
Arcadia, by Lauren Groff