How does a well-meaning man, living the principles of an idyllic and idealistic upbringing, cope with the wrenching changes in his life? How does a visionary leader engender his ideals in his followers? Lauren Groff provides memorable answers to these questions in her knowing and compassionate second novel, Arcadia.
A cult has grown up around Handy, a folk/rock singer reminiscent of Jerry Garcia. He and his followers realize their utopian dream when they come into 600 acres in Upstate New York, and in the late 1960s they found the commune Arcadia. Built on full egalitarian principles, Arcadia achieves self-sufficiency for a time, with acceptance for misfits, common-law marriages, and a hands-off policy toward drug use. Into this idyll is born Ridley Stone, a premature baby and diminutive child and adult, known universally as “Bit.” Through Bit’s eyes we witness the unique and inexorable events of this story: a community starts under the highest ideals, but human nature rears its head and jealousy, lust, covetousness, and anger creep in to spoil things. Bit suffers particularly on account of the women in his life: his mother Hannah suffers from seasonal affective disorder and barely stirs from bed for months at a stretch. Helle, the childhood chum who grows brightly beautiful by age thirteen turns out quite troubled – a heavy drug user and apparent thief. Eventually she becomes the mother to Bit’s daughter Grete, and at least in her case, Bit’s influence proves sufficient to inculcate responsibility and a sense of family.
We suffer as along with Bit. He’s a sympathetic character: caring, gentle, and wise, if a little timid. In this way he embodies the commune and its spirit. At the end of the story, his mother’s mortality grinds down Bit’s last nerve and physical reserves, but also provides a release from some overwhelming responsibilities, and an opportunity for love. Arcadia is the history of a noble experiment, an experiment that has hopeful beginnings, a golden age, and a tragic end. We hope Bit’s end will not be tragic, because he’s a highly sympathetic being who was schooled in principles by parents with high ideals.
And truly that is the story: Ms. Groff questions whether a commune like the one she describes can withstand the vagaries of human nature. The Arcadia of her story certainly can’t. Bit, however, is the community’s central figure, true to its ideals to the end. We wish his luck with the love of his life could have been better. This novel enjoys a much tighter focus than The Monsters of Templeton, and the result shows off the author’s great skill with the language and the depth of her treatment of the moral issues. The prose throughout makes this novel fairly glow – there’s almost no other way to describe it. This is a highly memorable read with fully-drawn characters, and a unified theme and concept carried forward very precisely by the characters. Ms. Groff’s skill is really very impressive, and I’ll frankly say it’s more than I hoped for after Monsters. She hits it out of the park! Take it up!