There are some books that you mourn the ending of as you come to the final pages. Arcadia was not one of those books for me. It is a testament to the author that I made it to the end at all. If you decide to read Arcadia (and I recommend you do, for Lauren Groff is an amazing writer), be prepared to struggle. But also be prepared to be moved profoundly by a story of true depth and power.
The Arcadia that Lauren Groff imagines is a 1970’s hippie commune populated with full, rounded characters that are eerily recognizable, even today. Each of them transcend their defined roles of ‘idealist’ or ‘trippie’ or ‘guru’ or ‘midwife’. Each of them is complex, human, and real. We experience this profoundly disturbing place through the experiences of tender, open-hearted Bit (the Littlest ‘Bit’ of a Hippie), as we follow him from age 5 to adulthood. The subtle tension between the actual events, which are horrifying at times, and Bit’s perception of them leaves the reader as vulnerable and exposed as Bit. Because of this tension (which felt strangely like fingers on a chalkboard to me), I struggled to get through the first half of the book. I found that once the screeching stopped, however, the story was incredibly beautiful, deeply meaningful, and resoundingly true.
Even though Arcadia is widely acclaimed and comes highly recommended by readers and industry experts, I still found Arcadia difficult to read and, on some levels, flawed. Part of the difficulty stemmed from the unreliable narrator, to be sure, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The timeline of the story stretches too far into the future to maintain the intensity of the plot, and the scope widens to include world events that throw the novel off-center. Groff sets up all the elements and conflicts she needs early in the story, and dabbling in the larger themes of 9/11 and world contagions only serves to dilute the solid reality of the world she so carefully created in the first half of the book.
Groff deserves to be praised for her prowess as a writer. She has the uncanny ability to strip away the filters between the reader and the text until the events of the story are uncomfortably close. Flaws and all, Arcadia is worth reading. Just don’t expect it to be easy.