four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
By: 
Lauren Groff
user_rating: 
0

744835.pngLauren Groff’s first novel was The Monsters of Templeton ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection May/June 2008), followed by the short story collection Delicate Edible Birds (2009). Arcadia is her second novel.

The Story: Bit Stone is the first child born in the upstate New York commune of Arcadia, whose settlement of Free People espouses "Equality, Love, Work, Openness to the Needs of Everyone." In four sections, the story of Arcadia—and its lasting influence on Bit—unfolds as he struggles to understand himself and his unusual heritage. In the first part, Bit recalls his idyllic, hardscrabble childhood and the often hypocritical nature of the group. In the second, Arcadia suffers from growing pains as Bit breaks with the community. The third part shows Bit as an adult in his 30s in Manhattan; the final section takes place in a dystopian future. Over the decades, Bit reflects Arcadia’s rise, fall, and ultimate message of hope. "We’re all looking for what we lost," he says. "A tight, beautiful community, filled with people he loved like family, living closely and relying on one another, a world with music and stories and thought and joy, of earthy happiness."
Voice. 291 pages. $25.99. ISBN: 9781401340872

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Page by page through Lauren Groff’s story about a hippie commune in western New York, I kept worrying that it was too good to last. Not the commune—it’s a mess from the start—I’m talking about the novel, which unfolds one moment of mournful beauty after another." Ron Charles

Daily Beast 4 of 5 Stars
"Despite the familiar feel of this flower-child fantasy, Groff’s writing is fresh and the narrative compelling. … The novel, in its second half, becomes about the quest to find a semblance of that community when defined parameters—a commune, a band, a family—dissolve." Chloe Schama

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Groff has taken a quaint, easily caricatured community and given it true universality, not just the knee-jerk kind that Arcadian platitudes espoused. … But even when Arcadia moves into 2018 and introduces technology redolent of science fiction, it remains stirringly human in its point of view." Janet Maslin

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Filled with lush imagery and tender wisdom, Arcadia would be an engrossing and affecting novel if it never left the farm. But it gains much greater depth as Groff follows Bit into adulthood, exploring those resonances and their unexpected turns." Colette Bancroft

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Kindness seems to sweep through this book: Groff has a gentle touch when writing about the commune, which is the sort of place that seems like a utopia … but is nonetheless riddled with hypocrisy and misjudgment. … The final section of Arcadia has the sad messiness of real life … [and] the slow realization that some questions will never have answers." Moira Macdonald

Entertainment Weekly 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s a sensitive and skillfully written portrait of an eccentric bunch of survivors who are both damaged and sustained by their experience, and Groff spins their stories into a moving look at the value of human connection in a scary, chaotic world. How disappointing, then, that the adult Bit is such an unresolved mystery." Rob Brunner

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Depending on your age, Arcadia will either feel like grave-robbing a past best left buried, or apocalyptic sci-fi. Regardless of one’s views on the social experiments of the ‘60s and ‘70s, however, there was a vivacity beneath all that wishful thinking that evaporates in Groff’s first-person voice, which encases the period in the aspic of precision-cut prose." Jan Stuart

Critical Summary

Critics who feared a romantic, idyllic portrait of life in a 1970s commune were relieved—thrilled—to find that Lauren Groff has "taken on the more universal myth of paradise lost" (Washington Post) with her clear-eyed, razor-sharp view of the era. Though the narrative focuses on Bit, Groff—through entirely believable details, lush imagery, and a compelling storyline—tells a much larger story about the quest for wisdom, kindness, and community. The sections about the commune’s successes and follies will draw in readers of a certain age, but the novel gets even better when Bit leaves the commune. A few false notes, including a drawn-out love story, the chronological gaps, and the futuristic ending, left a few critics scratching their heads. But Arcadia goes well beyond caricature to shed light on the lasting values, both true and false, of an era.