After reading Lauren Groff’s first book, The Monsters of Templeton, I was expecting something totally different, something perhaps more sinister. But Arcadia is a quiet and thoughtful novel. It is the story of Bit, the first child born in a group of a couple dozen hippies who are following a charismatic musician named Handy–essentially a bunch of groupies–during the 1970s. They are also idealists who want to create a utopian commune where they can support themselves entirely from their own efforts, living off the land. The book follows the rise and fall of the commune and its aftermath.
The first part of the book takes place when Bit is a young boy. The group has settled on a large estate in upstate New York to found their commune. Bit’s father Abe is a master carpenter and his mother Hannah is a baker and the group historian. We sense that Abe is the parent more fully invested in this way of life, as Hannah does not accept or observe all of the commune’s rules.
Hannah is a golden earth mother type who is active and ebullient in the summer but falls into severe depressions in the winter. One winter, Bit sets himself a test inspired by a fairy tale book he found in the ruins of the property’s mansion house by making himself a bargain to stop speaking until she comes out of her depression. Abe is absorbed with trying to organize the renovation of the house so that everyone will have a warm place to live, since for years they all have been living out of their cars and vans and homemade shacks.
In the second part, Bit is a teenager trying to cope with the disintegration of Arcadia, which is overcrowded with runaways, junkies, and other refugees from outside and having problems with the law. He is also in love with Helle, Handy’s disturbed but beautiful daughter.
The third part takes place a few years into a dystopian future. Everyone has left Arcadia. Bit is a photography professor living in New York City, a single parent mourning the departure of his wife. It is a time of social disintegration because of the forces brought about by climate change, especially a series of pandemics.
The novel is the work of a vivid imagination, as Groff is able to fully realize what it would be like to grow up completely cut off from the world, learning mores that are different from those of society, and how that would affect the rest of a person’s life. The novel’s biggest weakness is in having too many characters to get to know them well, especially in the middle section, where Bit’s teenage friends all sort of blur into each other. I found the tale interesting but at times slow moving, somewhat meditative, which I believe is intentional.