Free love isn't all it's cracked up to be
It sounds pretty great: a society in which there is no heirarchy, where everyone contributes equally in the pursuit of a pure life lived off of the earth, where idealism is a reality. Growing up in such a place would be paradise, wouldn't it? In Lauren Groff's brilliant new novel Arcadia (following the equally outstanding Monsters of Templeton and the story collection Delicate Edible Birds), Bit Stone gets just such an opportunity - sort of. His parents, Hannah and Abe, are some of the founding members of a commune in New York State in the 1970s, and Bit is the first child born in the eclectic group of idealists working to refurbish a crumbling abandoned mansion named Arcadia House, where they intend to create a home for their community. Groff's story follows Bit as he first basks in the glow of so many doting adults, then later discovers that their noble intentions don't always lead to noble actions. He learns to love the land around him and the freedom that comes with his parents' creative theories about child-rearing, but he soon discovers that there is a darker side to the openness that surrounds him.
The book is divided into several sections, touching on pivotal periods in Bit's life, so we get to see how this unusual upbringing affects Bit at these different points. Bit's evolution from a quiet observer of a child to an equally sensitive, reserved middle-aged man is nuanced and utterly believable, and his story is told with such grace and lyricism that this book, though it may not have a terribly exciting, fast moving plot, became as much of a page-turner for me as many a thriller. This is a broad, ambitious novel, and Groff pulls off this large scale portrait of a miniature family saga beautifully. Groff's lush, elegant prose is delightful, and it's easy to become immersed in the world she creates. It's truly a beautiful book (despite the garish psychedelic cover) and one that I imagine I'll be rereading in the future for the sheer pleasure of being consumed by Groff's vivid language once more.