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Arcadia (Review)

wonderfully-written-4

Arcadia
Lauren Groff, 2012
320 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
January, 2013

Utopian visions have captured our literary imagination through the millenia—from the Biblical Eden and Plato's Republic up through Thomas More's Utopia (which actually coined the word for us), and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance.

Lauren Groff's Arcadia is the latest in that long line and can stand easily among its celebrated forebears. The novel has landed on many a "Best Books" list for 2012—and deservedly so.

Arcadia House is the name Groff has given to her fictional commune in upstate New York. The bulk of her book, which covers Arcadia's heyday, exudes a vibrant, dreamlike magic—the result of Groff's beautiful, incantatory prose.

Our guide through the novel is Ridley Stone, the first child born within the commune and nicknamed "Little Bit" as in "little bit of a hippie." Through his eyes we view his parents, Hannah and Abe, and the rest of the community—a tight-knit, extended family, idealistic souls whose intent it is to create "a beacon to light up the world." They till the soil, bake bread, sell their goods, raise their children, and rebuild a fallen down mansion to make their home.

Though it survives nearly 15 years—the 1970s and into the '80s—like all utopias Arcadia is doomed to fail. The very ideal its denizens treasure, individual freedom, turns out to be the commune's undoing. It is our heartbreak to watch the unraveling.

The last third of the book takes place years later in New York City, where Bit and his parents had landed after their ejection from Arcadia. Now an adult, Bit justifies to his parents why he remains in the city...

It wasn't the country that was so beautiful about the whole Arcadian experience, can't you see? It was the people, the connection, everyone relying on everyone else, the closeness...and the only place where the same feeling that exists now is here, in the city.... This, here, now, is more utopia than utopia.

As a child, Bit was fearful, of the woods, of losing his way, of losing his mother. Older now, he remains a hesitant man, living life at safe remove—behind the lens of a camera and in the solitude of a dark room. Without spoiling the plot, Bit must make a journey, back to Arcadia, to piece together the disperate bits of himself—and to find strength, love, and beauty in a fallen world.

This is a wonderful novel, with a rich vein of ideas for book clubs. The concept of utopia itself is a fascinating subject to talk about.

See our Reading Guide for Arcadia

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