Set on the grounds of a decaying mansion in western New York State in the s an American dream is taking shape. In the fields of western New York State in the s, on the grounds of a decaying mansion called Arcadia House, a few dozen idealists set out to live off the land. He grows up there, becoming deeply attached to Arcadia's way of life and everyone within it, in particular the beautiful but troubled Helle. While Arcadia rises and falls, Bit, too, ages and changes. He needs to find a way to live in the world beyond Arcadia, but can he let go of the past to forge a new start?

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An outhouse at Arcadia smells like wet muskrat. Children are reared in a Kid Herd. Groff has taken a quaint, easily caricatured community and given it true universality, not just the knee-jerk kind that Arcadian platitudes espoused.

Even more unexpectedly, she has expanded this period piece so that it stretches from to , coaxing forth a remarkable amount of suspense from the way her characters change over time. And a book that might have been small, dated and insular winds up feeling timeless and vast. The raw beauty of Ms. His real first name is Ridley, but he earned his nickname by being very small. He learns all about the body long before he understands the heart, mind or soul.

It takes a while for Bit to understand that his parents, Abe and Hannah, are very different from each other. In a community where sexual liaisons are free form and the concept of family is bewildering, he desperately wants his parents to stay together, though he fears they will not. Bit also begins to see that his mother is two people; he thinks of her as Summer Hannah and Winter Hannah.

And Ms. Even allowing for Ms. We are right inside that house when Ms. Arcadia is filled to the bursting point with runaways, indigents and drug burnouts. Guys in black leather jackets are showing up at this vegan paradise. There are two more big-time leaps for Ms. Since she never resorts to foreshadowing or any other storytelling tricks, the start of each section is truly startling.

Yet the impact of this creature was not simply malign. That book comes to signify his longing for the darkness that was always all around him but could never be acknowledged by Arcadian orthodoxy.

When Bit equates old age and illness with a long-forgotten fable of a woman bricked into a wall, alive but trapped, he has found his way to the deep, resonant heart of the Arcadian story.

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W e are endlessly fascinated by utopian societies, not least because sooner or later, they go horribly wrong. What we witness first is the day-to-day existence of a thriving s commune in New York State. We see everything through Bit's eyes as he grows up in a pastoral world "too full of terror and beauty". In other words, as with all sensitive children, Bit's world is magically magnified. This milky fog of narcissism is an apt trope for naturalistic communes gone horribly right. Soon, cracks begin to appear and it becomes apparent — surprise — that life in Arcadia is just like life Outside, but with vegan food and more nudity. Eventually the commune is broken up by external and internal pressures, and everybody scatters.


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Review: Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Arcadia, the title of Lauren Groff's second novel, is also the self-mythologising name of the hippie commune in which it's largely set. It's the early Seventies, and we begin with a five-year-old child's take on the commune — the innocent, rose-tinted views of Ridley "Bit" Stone. Groff has a good sense of those peculiar connections you make when you're young. But his child's logic begins to impact painfully and strangely when Bit's mother becomes depressed. Bit stops speaking, to save her from her mysterious illness: to his young mind, fed on the Grimms' fairytales, this pact of silence, a deal with the universe, makes total sense. Groff's style also winks at the youth of its protagonist: although written in the third person, she uses staccato, brief sentences in the present tense to build up the observations of Bit's young life: "He smells the bread of his mother, feels the wind carrying the cold.

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