He keeps his deepest belief tight to him: that people are good and want to be good, if only you give them a chance. That’s the most magnificent thing about Arcadia, he knows. It is the shell that protects them. (98)
I just finished Arcadia by Lauren Groff two days ago, and I’m inclined to agree with the back-of-book blurb from Richard Russo: “It’s not possible to write any better without showing off.” I have enjoyed Groff’s previous work (The Monsters of Templeton, Delicate Edible Birds) and she just seems to be getting better. Arcadia is the story of Bit, who was born to hippie parents on a commune – Arcadia – in rural New York. The first sections of the book are his childhood and teenagerhood in Arcadia, as the commune evolves and eventually dissolves. Then there is a skip forward in time, and Bit is an adult living in New York City, with a small daughter and a disappeared wife. The final section, which takes place in the near future (2018), is full of hope and fear: a pandemic, SARI, is sweeping the globe. At the same time, Bit’s mother Hannah is dying of ALS. Hannah, Bit, and Bit’s daughter Grete return to the house Bit’s father Abe built in Arcadia to wait out the pandemic and take care of Hannah.
The imagination required to create the atmosphere of Arcadia and the character of Bit is similar to that of Room, Emma Donoghue’s novel about a boy who has spent his whole life in one room, and is overwhelmed by the world when he escapes. As the 1970s end and the commune crumbles, Bit’s entire way of life, everything he has known and that has been normal to him, disappears, and he has to learn to live in the world “outside.” (Regretfully, this transition doesn’t get its own section, but it is briefly sketched out in the adult Bit’s memories.) Everyone must leave their childhood behind, but it is a rare case in which the whole community and its way of life ceases to exist as well. “It isn’t important if the story was ever true,” Bit realizes. “…He knows stories don’t need to be factual to be vital. He understands, with a feeling inside him like the wind whipping through a room, that when we lose the stories we have believed about ourselves, we are losing more than stories, we are losing ourselves (208).
One of the things that does remain is Bit’s relationships with others from Arcadia; most of them reconnect later in life. Many also end up in New York City, which would seem to be the opposite of a commune, but in fact has similarities. as Bit says to his father Abe, “It wasn’t the country that was so beautiful about the whole Arcadian experiment, don’t you see? It was the people, the interconnection, everyone relying on everyone else, the closeness. The villages are all dying now, small-town America is dying, and the only place where the same feeling exists now is here, in the city, millions of people all breathing the same air” (208).
Overall, this is a work of tremendous imagination and empathy. I would suggest it to anyone, particularly those who enjoyed Groff’s earlier work, Emma Donghue’s Room, or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad.