Reading women: Lauren Groff’s Arcadia

I rarely read newly published novels–unless the author is a tried and true favorite, I don’t trust the early hype, regardless of whence it comes.  I waited years before picking up Life of Pi (I liked it), and regretted the first 30 pages or so I managed to digest of The Kite Runner before putting it down completely.  Give me a classic of world literature, or a 10-year-old Booker Prize winner and I’m usually pleased.

There are only a small handful of authors that count in the ‘tried and true’ category, and even these I’ll usually wait around for a year or so after publication.  I still haven’t picked up the 1Q84 doorstop Murakami graced us with last year–I’m waiting to be stuck at home, sleep-deprived, with an infant, for that treat.  I did choose The Marriage Plot for one of my various book groups this winter, and Eugenides didn’t disappoint, but I’ve not read any recent Rushdie at all, despite my veneration for his classics.

I found a copy of The Monsters of Templeton a few years back on the bottom shelf of a now-defunct bookstore chain, and since then I’ve gifted or lent it to almost as many friends and family members as I’ve bequeathed with Chabon novels, which is really saying something.  When I saw Groff had come out with a new novel–the psychodelic-covered ArcadiaI actually went out and bought the hardback at my local bookstore.  Was this just a whim, or because I loved her first novel so very much, or because the matte jacket with pleasing purple butterflies appealed to my inner publisher?  Or because I’ve given away my latest copy of Monsters, so could not reread it as I felt I needed to?  Or is it because Groff is that rare thing: a young and talented and promising female writer?  

I am a woman, and an unapologetic feminist, and (I would like to believe) a discerning reader of good writing.  For these reasons, and so many more, it pains me to admit that I shy away from even the most talented and revered of female authors.  Shall I name names?  Let’s begin with the classics: Austen is great for a rainy day, and the Brontes are ridiculous and oh-so-fun, but they don’t thrill me to the bone like Lermontov or Twain.  Woolf is lovely, but too  British for my tastes, and O’Conner and Welty too southern–I’d prefer Gogol, Fitzgerald, Marquez.  Oates and Morrison leave me despondent: Rushdie and Chabon, anyone?

I have had this conversation with other smart young women in hushed tones, often after a few too many drinks.  We admit our infidelity with shame and chagrin, and lament our apparently misogynistic tastes and tendencies: unwitting or at least unwilling.  What devil in us prefers Dostoevsky to Elliot?  Emerson to Alcott?  What literary affirmative action might cure us of this embarrassing and unfeminine curse?

Please don’t misunderstand: I truly appreciate Austen and Alcott.  And there are exceptions to every rule: Carson McCullers blows my mind, as do Annie Proulx and Zora Neale Hurston.  Arundhati Roy is a personal hero (heroine?), and I’ve reread more Robin McKinley than Dostoevsky, which is actually really saying something.  But in general I tend to avoid “Women’s Fiction“, whatever that may be, when choosing novels.

This is why Groff is such a find: Monsters touches on something inherently feminine while achieving the sticky stylistic bend and plot-heavy construction of, well, my type of book.  This is why I couldn’t help but pick up her second novel.

Arcadia doesn’t accomplish the same magic as Monsters, although that’s not to say it’s not worth the read.  As with her first novel, Groff’s style is edgy and pleasing, her language at once neoteric and tinged with nostalgia.  There is a stream-of-consciousness quality to both plot and characterization that lends itself to reading-in-one-sitting rather than subway-browsing.  Unlike Monsters, however, the plot tends toward the meandering, the characters toward the amorphous and hazy and (at least to my reading) less than the magnetic.

The story follows and revolves around Ridley “Bit” Stone, so premature at birth he was given the nickname for ‘little bit of a hippie’.  Our novel begins with Bit at the age of 5, charmingly innocent and prescient as he watches the commune of Arcadia rise from the wilderness of upstate New York into a semblance of disorder.  Even at this tender age Bit can understand that he is part of something precious and irreplaceable, and this knowledge dogs him for the rest of his imperfect life–through young love and repeated heartbreak, and then through fatherhood and repeated mortality.  This dichotomy–the careful bloom between the dream of perfection and the painful light of the real–is what makes Arcadia worth reading.

Then Bit is 15, in love, fighting between the sanctity of childhood and the inevitable pull towards growing up, and this is heartbreaking.  Then it’s 2018 and he has become something of an adult, complete with his own child.  Then time skips again, but to go much further into the details would rob the hectic tumble of Bit’s story of some of its magic, and I wouldn’t do that to you.

Like Monsters of Templeton, the undercurrent and chorus of Arcadia is something like ‘you can’t go home again’.  Arcadia is a place of both heavenly eden and human torment: here there be familial love, innocence, and nature in all her magnificent glory, but where humanity thrives so does death, mental and physical illness, drugs and alcohol in excess, and all other types of human foibles.  This perfect place is haunted at every turn, and its very nature, as a haven for the free-minded and disenfranchised, will inevitably also be its downfall.

Bit is slow to learn these hard truths, about his childhood home and about the world beyond, and there were times when I became frustrated by his overwrought innocence, his insistance on clinging to a bright and shining past, real or imagined as it might be.  But then, you have to ask, how different is little Bit from us all, in this regard?  Not all of us were raised on a literal commune in the woods, but my own childhood and adolescent memories harken to similar scenes of eden, and similar falls from grace.  I, too, think back on those times and fight the unfortunate reality, that I cannot go back.

Perhaps I am too easy on Groff, because I want so very much to love her work, but in retrospect (I finished Arcadia some weeks ago and have been sitting, guiltily, on this review), I think not.  She is doubtless a very talented writer, but also, perhaps more importantly, a wise woman who happens to write very well.  I am pleased and proud to have found her, and to have that brightly-colored hardback of Arcadia on my shelf.  When her next book comes out, I’ll buy that one, too.

5 thoughts on “Reading women: Lauren Groff’s Arcadia”

    1. I dare not defend my position on ‘women’s fiction’, as I hardly have a leg to stand on. Example: I recall loving Mockingbird, and your post makes me want to reread it after so many years. Another case: I have not read Anne Tyler. What would you recommend?

  1. I searched in topics for Carson McCullers because I just picked up The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. However, when I found someone who loved Groff as much as me, and who praised McCullers – I had to comment. I love, love, love Groff. If you haven’t read her short fiction collection, Delicate Edible Birds, you need to go out and buy it immediately. I will continue to read McCullers and hope I’m as blown away as you were. : )

    1. I loved The Heart is a Lonely Hunter–I’ll be curious to hear what you think of it. I think it’s worth keeping in mind that McCullers was only 23 when she wrote it: although I’m not always one to connect the lives of authors to their works, in her case I find the strange and tragic circumstances intriguing.
      I haven’t read Delicate Edible Birds, but have it on my list, so I’ll take your recommendation! Can’t wait.

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