After reading–and loving–The Monsters of Templeton, I had to give Arcadia a try. I’ve never been super curious about communal living, but as I read through the novel, I was fascinated by the way Groff configures community, idealism, and disillusionment. All in beautifully written language.
Arcadia is a commune comprised of hippie idealists in the 1970s. One of its members is Bit, the novel’s protagonist. He enters Arcadia as a toddler with his parents, Abel and Hannah. He grows up in a land where community, selflessness, and living off the land carry the day. He knows only other Arcadians and cannot think of a world outside. So what happens when Bit must finally face the world? How does Arcadia shape (and even harm) him? The novel’s second half focuses on these gripping questions and even has a surprisingly dystopic finale that enters into a Margaret Atwood-like world of speculative fiction, in what could happen is a feasible and scary possibility.
I have to say, Lauren Groff might be one of my favorite “young” contemporary American authors. She interacts with historical American fiction in ways that are fresh and innovative. While Monsters interacted with the work of James Fenimore Cooper, Arcadia deftly tackles themes covered by American transcendentalists of the 19th century. When Emerson, Thoreau, and Elizabeth Peabody wrote about improving society through various means, it seems easy to latch on to such utopian views of the world. Groff respectfully covers such romantics in the Arcadians, while not shying away from the issues that come with such an intensely focused community.
If you’re an American lit scholar, read this book–I think it would be an intriguing companion to American Transcendental/beatnik literature. If you like a good book regardless, read it. The writing is excellent and the characters highly engaging.