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 Wisconsin-Madison
Awards—Pushcart Prize
Currently—lives in Gainesville, Florida

Lauren Groff is an American novelist and short story writer, who was as born and raised in Cooperstown, New York. She graduated from Amherst College and from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with an MFA in fiction.

Groff is the author of three novels. Her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton (2008), is a contemporary tale about coming home to Templeton, a stand-in for Cooperstown, New York. Interspersed in the book are voices from characters drawn from the town's history, as well as from James from Fenimore Cooper's 1823 The Pioneers, the first book in the Leatherstocking Tales. Fenimore Cooper set his book in a fictionalized Cooperstown which he, too, called Templeton. Groff's debut landed on the New York Times Bestseller list and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers.

Groff's second novel, Arcadia (2012), recounts the story of the first child born in a fictional 1960s commune in upstate New York. It, too, became a New York Times Bestseller and received solid reviews and was also named as one of the Best Books of 2012 by the New York Times, Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, NPR, Vogue, Toronto Globe and Mail, and Christian Science Monitor.

Fates and Furies (2015), Groff's third novel, examines a complicated marriage over the course of 24 years aas told by first the husband, then his wife. Like her previous novels, it, too, was published to wide acclaim, some calling it "brilliant," with Ron Charles of the Washington Post saying that "Lauren Groff just keeps getting better and better."

Groff has had short stories published in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Five Points, and Ploughshares, as well as the anthologies Best New American Voices 2008, Pushcart Prize XXXII, and Best American Short Stories—the 2007, 2010 and 2014 editions. Many of her stories appear in her collection Delicate Edible Birds (2009).

Groff is married with two children and currently lives in Gainesville, Florida. Groff's sister is the Olympic Triathlete Sarah True. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/22/2015.)

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.... Groff’s  beautiful prose make this an unforgettable read.
Publishers Weekly

Groff...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.... [Groff] gives 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.... 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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