My thoughts: As I sat down to read Arcadia, I expected the story of an Ithaca, New York-inspired commune in the 1960's. I got that, but Groff delivered much more too. Although this novel is firmly grounded in realism, it exhibited many of the traits of a dystopian novel. There was a sense of world-building among the Arcadians. They shared the ideals, but they had to find ways to made ideals reality.
I also didn't expect the novel to be narrated by Bit, who is five years old when it begins. I didn't particularly like Bit as a character, but I didn't dislike him either. His narration worked. I enjoyed seeing the world through Bit's eyes and mind. The open nature of Arcadia ensures there are not doors closed to him because of his age. While he does not understand all that happens around him, he does describe it well.
As I read, I found some fascinating comparisons to Room by Emma Donoghue (my review.) Both feature a young boy narrating. Both boys have no real knowledge of what the 'outside' world is. Neither really understands how unusual his childhood his. Both are exposed to adult situations early in life. There are major differences too. I didn't find Bit's voice as precocious. There were times I forgot he was narrating and the story took over. In many ways, Arcadia is Room on a larger scale. It tackles a bigger set of characters, a larger time span and deeper issues:
"It seems a give-and-take, you know? Freedom or community, community or freedom. One must decide the way one wants to live. I chose community."I adored this novel, and it was so much more than what I expected. Groff's prose is beautiful, but not self-consciously so. It seamlessly moves the action along; it doesn't disrupt. The large cast of characters manages to exist outside of cliche; they all felt real. The themes and ideas of this novel will stick with me as long as the memorable cast of characters will. I'm awed by how much Groff played with the tension between utopia, dystopia and reality.
Favorite passage: "It isn’t important if the story was ever true. Bit manipulates images: he knows stories don’t need to be factual to be vital. He understands, with a feeling inside him like a wind whipping through a room, that when we lose the stories we have believed about ourselves, we are losing more than stories, we are losing ourselves."
The verdict: Lauren Groff not only manages to cover fifty years in less than three hundred pages, she manages to do it while also playing with genre and exploring the nature of community and freedom. The result is this magnificent novel that is at times realistic, utopian and dystopian. Thankfully, at all times it's beautifully written and totally absorbing.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 289 pages
Publication date: March 13, 2012
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