Thursday, March 22, 2012

book review: Arcadia by Lauren Groff

The basics: Arcadia is the story of a central New York commune. It begins in the 1960's, but it stretches into 2018. It's also the story of Bit, the narrator. He was the first child born to Arcadia.

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
Source: publisher

 Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Arcadia from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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20 comments:

  1. I am so excited to start this book, and find the subject matter fascinating! I think it's interesting that the book is narrated by such a young character in the beginning, and I also thought of Room when you mentioned this. Great review today. This is one I need to read soon!

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    1. It's definitely one to read soon. I can't wait to hear your thoughts on it!

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  2. Wow, I need to read this ASAP! I have an ARC copy languishing on my shelves but now my interest is reinvigorated! Thanks for the great review :)

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    1. Kat--I hope you like it as much as I did!

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  3. I got this one from Net Galley. I am looking forward to reading it within the next week or two. I am glad that you mentioned Room. I HATED Room because of the kid's voice so I am glad that Bit is not like the other kid.

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    1. As a warning, my e-galley was essentially unreadable on my Kindle as it had line numbers inserted in the middle of each sentence. I had to track down a paper copy. It was still worth it;-). Hope you enjoy it!

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  4. I had mixed feelings about The Monster of Templeton -- the writing was nice, but the story felt a bit choppy and vignette-y (then she did her volume of short stories, and I think that's her strength). I've got an ARC of this at home -- guys in the '60s don't always intrigue me but your review has me convinced I need to stop being a hater! ;)

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    1. It's not all in the 1960's! I need to go back and read Monsters of Templeton. I spent a summer in Cooperstown and love it. I'm not a big short story reader, but I have heard Delicate Edible Birds is worth reading, so I'll give it a go too.

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  5. I just started reading this one last night and it is kind of intriguing so far. I'm only a few pages in, so I'm not sure what to make of it, but it is good.

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    1. Aths, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

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  6. I read Monsters of Templeton and it didn't really click with me. This new one seemed intriguing and now your thoughts have me adding it to my TBR list.

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    1. I'm intrigued to go back and read Monsters of Templeton now, but I'll go in with lower expectations for it.

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  7. Ah now I'm more sad that I haven't been able to read this yet!! It sounds great... I'll have to get a copy at the ucf book thing for sure.

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  8. I've seen this one pop up everywhere lately, but your review put me over the edge. I've added it to my list!

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    1. Melissa, I can't wait to hear your thoughts!

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  9. I've always been fascinated by communes, and I think Groff did a marvelous job with Arcadia, especially since all of the characters were flawed. It was Utopia, but it just wouldn't work because nobody could completely put their own needs aside (although Bit's dad came close...except in his later years after they left the commune).

    The only thing I didn't care for was the jump to 2018. I found it jarring, especially the epidemic. It's stopping me from really loving the book, which is unfortunate, because I was really, really into the first half of the book.

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    1. I was certainly surprised by the last time jump (well, the one before that too), but I really liked it. We had just watched Contagion a few days before, so I was willing to concede the next epidemic could come at any time. I also liked that it became dystopian. I loved the full circle of utopia to dystopia while staying tied to reality. I can see how it wouldn't work for all, but it made me realize how big Groff's scope was all along, while I thought the story wouldn't venture out of the 1960's.

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  10. I'm *dying* to read this book. I hope my library gets it soon! Great review. :)

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    1. Melissa--I hope so too. It was so wonderful and original!

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!