I remember reading Lauren Groff’s first novel The Monsters of Templeton several years ago and being quite impressed by it, not particularly amazed but I liked the book enough to be intrigued when I saw her second book on the shelves last year. Although I knew the book had received critical praise, I began reading without very high expectations (a book about growing up on a commune didn’t sound initially appealing, perhaps a little close to home as my brother had recently taken up residence in an ‘eco-village’ that resembled a commune a bit too closely and our family was not very happy about his lifestyle). I quickly realised, however, that this book was definitely going to be one to bypass all expectation and succeed in amazing me.
The story follows Bit as he grows up on what we would call a “hippie commune” – free love, drugs, veganism, etc. This premise is unique enough to stand out, but what is really special about the novel is Lauren Groff’s beautiful writing. It was the very first book I read on my Kindle and so I was only just getting used to the new method for taking notes and making highlights, but I still found plenty of passages to mark up. In fact I am planning on buying a physical copy when I return to America (not a fan of the UK cover) so that I can reread it and fully mark it up as I do to my most beloved books. Groff’s descriptions of childhood are very real – she captures the tenderness and vulnerability of a child’s formative years. Mixed into the opening passages of Bit’s childhood are some intelligent musings on language and the power of words (the strange physicality and materiality of them), told through the perspective of a young boy just discovering both. Bit is in awe of words, scared by their power, and so he stops speaking. His silence is a powerful lens through which to view this strange world, where (as we will eventually learn along with Bit) the idealistic words of the Arcadians are often hollow. Groff describes Bit’s silence as a physical struggle against an internal foe:
He concentrates. He pushes back the words that were already sickly until they die on the bitter part of his tongue. They send bad tendrils into his chest. They heap, a toad, in the cave of his throat. When he walks and eats and plays, he can imagine the slimy thing there, waiting angrily for a word to slip past, for a chance to curse them all.
The great achievement of the first part of the novel is, in my opinion, Groff’s ability to evoke Bit’s simple childhood revelations – realising the power of words and realising his own interiority as separate from an external world. These revelations become so embedded in our being that they cease to be revelatory. Groff returns us to the early wonder and does so beautifully:
For a few breaths he forgets himself in the swim of nature around him. its rhythm is so different from bit’s human own, both more nervous and more patient. he sees a bug that is smaller than a period on a page. he sees the sky, bigger than all that’s in his head. An overwhelm from two directions, vast and tiny, together.
The middle part of the novel loses some of the magic and wonder. This perhaps is a signal of Bit’s growing up – he is less amazed by the world around him, an adolescent with a much more stark view of the world. The strength of the middle part is instead Bit’s relationships to the other characters and the relationships that complicate the idealistic world of Arcadia. I won’t go into detail about the fate of Arcadia, but as with most communes formed during the idealistic 1960s and 1970s, the ugliness of humans’ natures begin to unravel the idealism. Bit is never an impartial observer, he is confused and conflicted and Groff allows us to see how he resists the truth and the changes. The middle section of the book takes on a more traditional bildungsroman theme, but I found it to be less pleasurable than the evocative childhood revelations. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the final part of the book – I won’t give anything away, but I liked the way Groff addressed the idea of utopia – the flaws in an idealistic society and later the longing for a (lost? nostalgically imagined?) utopia in a faltering society. In the end, the novel doesn’t quite regain the intuition, effortlessness, and finesse of the opening passages, but that serves it in some ways – Bit grows up, leaves his bubble (even though it was never a true sanctuary, Bit’s naiveté was his bubble) and becomes world-weary with the same human cares and worries as everyone else. I still gave Arcadia five stars, despite its lag in the middle, because all throughout Groff’s writing is simply wonderful. As a whole picture showing the progression of Bit’s life, the novel works very well. Even more than just the story of one man’s journey from childhood to adulthood, however, Groff also gives us an opportunity to grapple with complex truths, to search for the goodness mingled with the basenss of human nature – “The invisible tissue of civilization: so thin, so easily rendable,” she observes, “It’s a miracle that it exists at all.”