Arcadia (Groff)

Lauren Groff, 2012
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781401341909

In the fields of western New York State in the 1970s, a few dozen idealists set out to live off the land, founding what would become a commune centered on the grounds of a decaying mansion called Arcadia House. Arcadia follows this romantic, rollicking, and tragic utopian dream from its hopeful start through its heyday and after.

Arcadia's inhabitants include Handy, a musician and the group's charismatic leader; Astrid, a midwife; Abe, a master carpenter; Hannah, a baker and historian; and Abe and Hannah's only child, the book's protagonist, Bit, who is born soon after the commune is created.

While Arcadia rises and falls, Bit, too, ages and changes. If he remains in love with the peaceful agrarian life in Arcadia and deeply attached to its residents--including Handy and Astrid's lithe and deeply troubled daughter, Helle—how can Bit become his own man? How will he make his way through life and the world outside of Arcadia where he must eventually live?

With Arcadia, her first novel since her lauded debut, The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff establishes herself not only as one of the most gifted young fiction writers at work today but also as one of our most accomplished literary artists. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—July 23, 1978
Where—Cooperstown, New York, USA
Education—B.A., Amherst College; M.F.A., University of
Awards—Pushcart Prize (see below)
Currently—lives in Gainesville, Florida

Lauren Groff grew up in Cooperstown, New York, one block from the Baseball Hall of Fame. She graduated from Amherst College and has an MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of journals, including the Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, One Story, Five Points and Five Chapters, and in the anthologies Best American Short Stories 2007, Pushcart Prize XXXII, and Best New American Voices 2008. She was awarded the Axton Fellowship in Fiction at the University of Louisville, and has had residencies and fellowships at Yaddo and the Vermont Studio Center.

The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren's first novel, was a New York Times and Booksense bestseller, and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers. Her second book, Delicate Edible Birds, is a collection of stories. Both books are published by Hyperion. (From the author's website.)

Hyperion also published Lauren's second novel, Arcadia, in 2012. The story of an ill-fated commune in upper New York state during the 1960s and 80s, Arcadia received excellent reviews and was included in a number of Best Book of 2012 lists.

From a Barnes & Noble interview:

• Many—if not most—of my ancestors are Mennonite or Amish, all Pennsylvania Dutch—my grandfather still can speak Pennsylvania Dutch, and there's a Groffdale in Lancaster County filled with people who look curiously like me.

• I spent a year between high school and college as a Rotary Youth Exchange Student in Nantes, France—mostly in the house of a family with a catering business (when I returned from France, I'd gained so much weight that my parents didn't recognize me at first in the airport).

When asked what book most influenced her life as a writer, here is her response:

My absolute favorite book is Middlemarch, which I first read in high school, and have read again nearly every year since. George Eliot is the most intelligent of writers, capable of a breathtaking empathy, and able to write prose that pierces you. I love her panoramic take of a single town in this book: Middlemarch the town is whole and imperfect and beautiful, just like real life. It hovers before me as the ideal of a great book. (From Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Ms. Groff has taken a quaint, easily caricatured community and given it true universality, not just the knee-jerk kind that Arcadian platitudes espoused. Even more unexpectedly, she has expanded this period piece so that it stretches from 1965 to 2018, coaxing forth a remarkable amount of suspense from the way her characters change over time. And a book that might have been small, dated and insular winds up feeling timeless and vast.
Janet Maslin - New York Times

Lauren Groff's second novel, Arcadia, arrives bearing enthusiastic blurbs from Kate Walbert and Richard Russo…But readers doomed to miss their subway stops will wish the cover also included a warning: "This novel will swallow you whole"…The book's real treat…is Groff's writing. As in her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, Groff's sentences are lush and visual…Her descriptions of the young Bit, meanwhile, uncannily illuminate the hidden world of children.
John Wilwol - New York Times Book Review

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…Arcadia offers something surprising: if not a redemption of utopian ideals, then at least a complicated defense of the dream…Groff's miracle is to record the death of the fantasy but then show how the residue of affection can persist and, given the right soil, sprout again. Arcadia wends a harrowing path back to a fragile, lovely place you can believe in.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

(Starred review.) Groff’s dark, lyrical examination of life on a commune follows Bit, aka Little Bit, aka Ridley Sorrel Stone, born in the late ’60s in a spot that will become Arcadia, a utopian community his parents help to form. Despite their idealistic goals, the family’s attempts at sustainability bring hunger, cold, illness, and injury.... Split between utopia and its aftermath, the book’s second half tracks the ways in which Bit, now an adult...has been shaped by Arcadia.... The effective juxtaposition of past and future and Groff’s (Delicate Edible Birds) beautiful prose make this an unforgettable read.
Publishers Weekly

Bit Stone was born in the early 1960s to a devoted couple living in a secluded hippie commune in western New York. He was a mostly happy boy, if quietly unnerved (his mother struggles with seasonal depression), who loves Arcadia and his parents and all the people there who lead hard, pure lives, living off the land.... Verdict: Groff, author of 2008's magnificent The Monsters of Templeton, eschews counterculture stereotypes to bring Bit's interior and exterior worlds to life. Her exquisite writing makes the reader question whether to hurry up to read the next beautiful sentence or slow down and savor each passage. Highly recommended. —Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Library Journal

(Starred review.) This beautifully crafted novel follows Bit Stone, the first child to be born in the late 1960s on an upstate New York commune called Arcadia, from childhood through the year 2018. ...Bit’s family leaves the commune to make their way in the outside world...but happiness proves elusive, both for him and for the greater world, as a flu pandemic sweeps the globe.... Groff’s second full rein to her formidable descriptive powers, as she summons both the beauty of striving for perfection and the inevitable devastation of failing so miserably to achieve it. —Joanne Wilkinson

(Starred review.) An astonishing novel, both in ambition and achievement, filled with revelations that appear inevitable in retrospect, amid the cycle of life and death. As a follow-up to Groff's well-received debut (The Monsters of Templeton, 2008), this novel is a structural conundrum, ending in a very different place than it begins while returning full circle. At the outset, it appears to be a novel of the Utopian, communal 1960s, of a charismatic leader, possibly a charlatan, and an Arcadia that grows according to his belief that "the Universe will provide." It concludes a half-century later in a futuristic apocalypse of worldwide plague and quarantine. To reveal too much of what transpires in between would undermine the reader's rich experience of discovery.... A novel of "the invisible tissue of civilization," of "community or freedom," and of the precious fragility of lives in the balance.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also, consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Arcadia (quotes refer to hardcover):

1. Talk about Little Bit. Aside from his name's stated meaning, "little bit of a hippie," what is the thematic significance of his name? What do you think of him as a adolescent...and eventually as an adult? How does Arcadia shape his adult life—has it been a positive or negative influence? Finally, what does he come to understand by the end of the novel?

2. What do you think of Hannah and Abe—as parents and as members of the commune?

3. Do you think it's right to sequester children in a commune like Arcadia, far from the reality of society? Is Bit, or any of the children, prepared for adult life? Or, on the other hand, perhaps you believe that the security of a protected environment gives children a chance to develop the inner-strength and values they'll need as adults.

4. Talk about the hardships members of the commune face. Why do Hannah and Abe remain under such difficult conditions? Would you stay, even given a strong commitment?

5. Why do the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales hold such power for Little Bit? What do they express for him, inwardly, that he can't find words to express outwardly? What dark forebodings might they hold for Arcadia?

6. What do you think of Handy—how would you describe him? What do you think of him as a husband and father? What kind of a leader is he? What role does he play in Arcadia—initially and over time?

7. Talk about Handy's first reaction to the completed Arcadia House. What is Abe expecting—why is he deflated by Handy's response? What eventually happens to Abe and Handy's relationship—and why? At one point Handy accuses Abe of "fomenting discord" while Abe insists he (Abe) has stayed true to their original aims, implying that Handy has not [p. 123].

8. How do you view Hannah and Bit's secret marijuana field? Were you rooting for their harvest to succeed—even though they're raising an illegal drug to sell on the open market? Or do you find it understandable—given that Arcadia desperately needs money to feed themselves through the winter?

9. What is Abe attempting to teach the boys during his tutorial on Milton. What does he mean when he quotes, "the mind is its own place" [p. 120, hardcover ]?  Is it? And how might that insight help Bit survive the expulsion from Eden and his life in adulthood?

10. Comment on the observation that "when we lose the stories we have believed about ourselves, we are losing more than stories, we are losing ourselves." What are some of the stories of your life that have been shattered?

11. What do you think happens to Helle in the third part of the novel?

12. Did you have expectations about hippie communes before reading Arcadia, and if so, does the book offer any revelations—new ways of understanding the communal movement? Or has the book confirmed what you've tended to think of communes?

13. What are the ideals and goals of Arcadia...and in what way do they change over the years? Are those ideals eventually corrupted...or were they simply too naive or quixotic, making them impossible to live up to? If the latter, why? If corrupted, how?

14. Arcadia champions individual freedom. To what extent can personal freedom exist in a utopian community?

15. Follow-up to Question 14:  The word Arcadia hearkens back to a mythical province of ancient Greece—a mountainous, pastoral area where humans and nature existed in complete harmony. Are utopian communities possible?

16. SPOILER ALERT: What led to the downfall of Arcadia? To what degree is Handy responsible? Or are other factors to blame?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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