Review: Returning to Lauren Groff's Arcadia

14. Nov. 2017

"Pay attention...Not to the grand gesture, but to the passing breath."

With a mounting tower of new books on my nightstand, I chose to re-read Arcadia by Lauren Groff for the beauty and balm her prose always delivers. My hunger for new stories can leave me whirling with new names and fates. I decided to revisit a story where there could be no new surprises, where I could simply read to enjoy. I devoured this novel two years ago and was worried the magic may have faded in the wake of all I've read since. What happened instead was a gift. 

It’s the late 1960’s and our hero is Little Bit, a young boy whose world is a sprawling commune in the acres of upstate New York. His unique normal is a community of artists, pacifists, and dreamers who use their ingenuity, large-scale puppetry, knowledge of nature’s pharmacy, and fierce commitment to each other to re-create Eden. Little Bit believes with the certainty of a young child that he carries the burden of his mother’s happiness. Deciding that his words would shatter the equilibrium of his family of three, he chooses to be mute. A fairy-tale conceit, this belief that our tiny actions will keep those most important to us safe. He is our silent guide to Arcadia, a observer of nuance, often overlooked and therefore the keeper of secrets. The commune’s tribal governing works far longer than expected. The kernel of genuine desire the core Arcadians nurture for an alternative American Dream is seductive. The story of their triumphs, Little Bit’s prophetic glints, and the inevitable unraveling of the community is compelling and sad and compulsively readable. 

The novel shifts and the children of Arcadia are integrated into the America of dentistry, sidewalks, and pasteurization. We follow the characters into abrupt modernity and watch the tension their bonds undergo. The adult Bit hasn’t forgotten the magic of noticing. He faces his young daughter whose heart has been bruised and without explanation, begins: "The sharpness of radishes on the middle of the tongue. A hot shower after a cold day. Feeling how strong you are when you squeeze my neck. A spritz of lemon in my water." Such a tiny shift in focus, but I cheered as her heart brightened and she began to sing of her own small joys…“so excited she is standing on her chair, invoking the tiny domestic gods of grape cough syrup and Japanese beetles and the cedar bed in the preschool's hamster cage." 

Bit’s return to Arcadia is the novel’s third act. His reluctance to reenter a place of so many broken promises is made necessary by his once-powerful mother’s failing health and her intense need to say goodbye to life with dignity. The echoes of the child Bit segue well with the man he became and the descriptions of Arcadia’s ruins reclaimed by nature believably mirror the earlier voice of unspoiled youth. This last section of the novel proves its thesis - the rewards reaped by noticing the everyday beauty of life are vast and fragile. Look up expecting fireworks and risk missing what will later ground you. 

My first read of “Arcadia” was plot-driven. On this second journey, free from the big reveal, I was struck by the intimacy of the central family, their cohesion reliant on a careful study of gesture, mood, the need for breath. The quiet intensity of the present is this novel’s gift. Time is flowing through my own fingers at an almost unforgivable pace. My children are leaving years and "firsts" behind too rapidly for any mother and November has come again in what couldn't have been an entire year. The always constant change of our world seems to have accelerated recently, too fast for the seismic grind of history. Ms. Groff's invocation to honor, with focus and intention, who and what is in front of us is not original, but a reminder most needed. And perhaps one of the better written reminders at that. Rarely has a re-visit offered a richer view into a story already lived.

Ghillian's Reviews - 02 - "Arcadia by Lauren Groff"
Ghillian's Reviews - 02 - "Arcadia by Lauren Groff"

Ghillian Porter-Smith reviews the book Arcadia by Lauren Groff for OgFOMK ArTS.

© Ghillian Porter-Smith / OgFOMK ArTS -- 2017 All Rights Reserved. - Ghillian's Reviews - 02 - "Arcadia by Lauren Groff"

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