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Lauren Groff – Arcadia

February 27, 2012

LibraryThing Early Reviewers19. Arcadia by Lauren Groff (2012)

Length: 292 pages
Genre: Literary Fiction, with some Historical Fiction and a definite flavor of Family Saga thrown in for good measure.

Started: 13 February 2012
Finished: 17 February 2012

Where did it come from? LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers.
Why do I have it? I really enjoyed Groff’s Monsters of Templeton and was looking forward to reading more of her work.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 18 January 2012.

Utopian dreams
are just fine, but at some point
you have to wake up.

Summary: Ridley Sorrel Stone – known as Bit due to his perennial small stature – is the first true Arcadian, born in the late 1960s as his parents, along with a group of fellow hippies and ideologists, travel to upstate New York, to the place that will become the commune of Arcadia. Located in and around a decaying mansion, Arcadia is a utopian dream, a community of equals, living off the land and off the hard work of its members. As Arcadia’s fame spreads, however, so do its problems, and Bit, now a teenager, must watch as his parents’ dream, and the only world he’s ever known, begins to crumble around them. But even once Bit is grown up, and out in the real world, Arcadia is in his blood, and he must use the lessons of his childhood to find a place for himself in his future.

Review: Arcadia takes place in four segments, when Bit is five, thirteen, early thirties, and late forties. It is a book, primarily, about family, and connection, and community, and about what it takes to create those things and how they can be fragile and strong at the same time. It’s not the easiest book to read; the writing is lovely and lyrical and haunting, but it takes some effort to get into the rhythm of Groff’s prose, and it always left me feeling simultaneously hollow and heavy. (Which is not a bad thing, at all, and is actually a sign of how effective her prose is, but it did make the reading experience slower going than it might otherwise have been.) I thought Groff did a particularly nice job at capturing the flavor and the feel of Bit’s changing thought processes as he ages; it can’t be easy to make a five-year-old and a fifty-year-old sound age-appropriate but also like the same person, but Groff manages beautifully.

While the language was absolutely beautiful, I wasn’t as sold on the actual story. Bit and his parents (and later his daughter) were interesting, believable people, but I didn’t really connect to them as much as I wanted to. This was less of a problem in the early parts of the book – then, my heart broke for everyone involved with Arcadia, with their big hopeful dreams and their incredible naivete and their knack for going about things so badly. My lack of connection to the characters was primarily a problem during the third part, in which Bit is dealing with the absence of his wife, who has walked out on him and their infant daughter. I think a lot of the impact of this part relied on the reader feeling sympathy for Bit, whereas I never really understood what he saw in her, even as children, and thought he was well shot of her as an adult.

Overall, it’s an ambitious idea for a novel, and the execution, particularly in terms of the prose styling, is absolutely flawless. It’s not destined to become a personal favorite – even between the two books of Groff’s that I’ve read, I preferred Monsters of Templeton – but it was something off the beaten track for me, and I’m glad I made the diversion. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: The main motivation for me to pick it up was that I like Groff’s writing style, but there’s absolutely substance here as well. I’d recommend Groff in general to fans of literary fiction, and if the magical realism of Monsters of Templeton is a turn-off, then Arcadia would be a fine place to start.

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First Line: The women in the river, singing.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2012 11:58 am

    This does sound interesting. It’s too bad you weren’t able to connect with the characters. There are times when I feel like beautiful writing interferes with a story.

    • February 29, 2012 12:37 pm

      I don’t know that the writing got in the way so much, just that I didn’t always empathize with Bit the way I wanted to.

  2. February 27, 2012 1:43 pm

    I should probably get around to my copy of Monsters of Templeton before reading this one, but maybe in the future I will pick it up. Frankly the magic realism is why I want to read her in the first place, so her first book is my better bet.

  3. February 28, 2012 10:33 pm

    I’m torn on this. I like the cover and the premise, but I wasn’t wild about Monsters of Templeton, and for the same reasons you didn’t love every moment of Arcadia. Groff’s writing was good but her plotting not quite so much.

    • February 29, 2012 12:44 pm

      Yeah, maybe not, then. I do love her covers, though, both this and for Templeton…

  4. March 2, 2012 12:42 pm

    This is a book that I passed on when it was offered to me because I thought I might have a similar reaction. It’s one I might check out from the library someday just to see though.

    • March 6, 2012 9:29 pm

      Alyce – If I had read/thought a little more about it, I might have passed too, since the topic is not one that necessarily goes “oh, you really should read that.” I saw Groff’s name and immediately decided I wanted to read it, though. And it was a worthwhile read, even if it’s not going to be a favorite.

  5. March 3, 2012 6:01 pm

    I am so glad that someone who also loved The Monsters of Templeton also loved Arcadia. My copy is preordered and should arrive this month. I can’t wait!

    • March 6, 2012 9:30 pm

      LitHouse – Well, since you’re the reason I picked up Monsters of Templeton in the first place, I really should have given you at least partial blame for this book too! I hope you like it as much as you liked her first!

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