Arcadia by Lauren Groff

A life of peace and simplicity – the definition of the word “arcadia,” and the world a group of idealists aspires to in Lauren Groff’s new novel – Arcadia. But the simple life is not always easy – no indoor plumbing, living off the land, surrendering individual will for the good of the whole.

Hannah, with a trust fund that sometimes has kept the group from starving, and Abe, an engineer in his former life, try to leave their mercenary world behind to make a better life in a commune in upstate New York with their small son, Bit. When Handy, the leader of the pack, goes off to give concerts with some of the musically talented in the group, Abe organizes those left behind to renovate an old mansion destined to become the communal house.

The story revolves around Bit’s life in four phases, from his naïveté and wonder as a child thriving in a pastoral setting to his teen years, when the struggle to maintain the utopian ideal frays under the strain of too many people with not enough resources. The small band of hippies had grown to 900, and Bit’s father has become an invalid in a wheelchair before the community finally disbands.

Groff fast forwards in the third section to Bit in his thirties, a single father in the real world who teaches photography at a small college. Although he has managed to survive his upbringing, still grounded with some of the ideals his parents wished for him, the fortunes of others from Arcadia vary. Groff neatly inserts updates on the principle characters – Handy with his fourth wife; Abe and Hannah back on the old Arcadia property; Astrid, Handy’s first wife, a pioneer in midwifery. The grown-up children have all forsaken the ideals of their parents, and have traded the essence of Arcadia for more worldly pursuits.

Although Groff leaves the fate of Bit’s wife hanging – she took a walk and never came back – the book could have ended successfully for me at this point. But Groff adds a last grueling section – Bit in his forties, caring for his mother who has unsuccessfully attempted suicide to stop the progress of her debilitating slide into ALS. As Bit’s mother declines, so does the world of 2018 with a pandemic threatening the overall population.

In this last section, Groff manages to revisit the original Arcadia and reexamine its purpose and effect. The dream of Arcadia commands a certain reverence and respect, but the reality of Arcadia could never measure up. The world does not end, but Eden seems to dissolve into dystopia. Throughout, Bit somehow manages to keep the faith.

“{Bit} lets the afternoon sink in. The sweetness of the soil rises to him…The city is still far away, full of good people going home. In this moment that blooms and fades as it passes, he is enough, and all is well with the world.”

The lure of learning more about the circle of vegan liberal-minded groupies who were trying to model a way of life that could save the world kept me reading, and Bit’s sudden entry into a world without those supports was fascinating. But the last section left me feeling cheated; the world survived despite the meat-eating, environment-abusing, disease-ridden population who never embraced Arcadia. What was Groff trying to say?