ARCADIA opens with the members of a thriving commune gathered for a Sunday Morning Meeting. We are introduced to 5 year old Bit, who is tiny, a mote of a boy, and the warm physical and emotional comfort he derives from his parents, Abe and Hannah, as well as the fear and unease they can prompt in him. This sets the scene beautifully for the rest of the novel, which is essentially Bit’s experiences of the world, how they are shaped by his childhood, at once idyllic and full of hardship, and how they are shaped by the love he gives and receives.
Like so many fictional Utopia’s, Arcadia is doomed to fail, yet Groff handles this inevitability with a gentleness and sensitivity that allows all that’s good about the commune to remain vivid and strong, rather than being over shadowed entirely. First and foremost is Bit’s relationship with the natural world and how that sustains him through his mother’s mental illness, a terrible accident that befalls Abe and the turmoil of having to leave a crumbling Arcadia. It’s the backdrop for all that’s good in his life, his memories are almost always cast in these terms and ARCADIA is a celebration of the incredible impact that growing up steeped in nature has on children. Groff’s writing is full of metaphors that conjure this world, so someone’s face, for example, is as kind as a field of dandelions, yet she’s not sentimental about it – the bucolic is always tempered by realism and decay.
Bit’s also indelibly shaped by his first love, a girl who lives alongside him at Arcadia and is responsible for both some of his most intense experiences of joy and for shaking his life to the core. She is a constant, if not always physical, presence in his adult life in the city, where he tries to remain true to the values of his childhood. whilst also building a new forward looking present. But when Hannah and Abe need his help, Bit returns to Arcadia and is forced to decide which parts of his past he wants to leave behind and which he will need for the future.
I loved this book. The day to day details of how the commune operates are wonderfully evocative – the back breaking bread making, the tatting and harvesting, the kidlets truck, the crew that deal with the loos every day, the piercing cold and the fuggy warmth. Bit himself, as a five year old child, as a teenager and as a grown man, is clearly much loved by Groff and that spills over abundantly, so as a reader I too couldn’t help but love him deeply. That said, I suspect more cynical readers may find him rather irritating or simply too good to be true. But Arcadia is a dream, and I think it’s good to dream because it encourages us strive for something better. Here that better is about a sense of community and connection, noticing the world around us, learning all the time, giving and sharing, and being physically active. Utopia doesn’t have to be a place, it’s about how we live our lives and, in Bit, Groff has created someone who as a child naturally embodies that, then as an adult must aim to do so more consciously. As with her depiction of the natural world, she’s unswervingly honest about how difficult it can be, but her love for what Bit is doing is as strong as for the character himself; the result is an honesty that’s brutal without being cruel.
ARCADIA chimes with a lot of my own beliefs and I expect that’s in large part why I derived such enjoyment from it. Yet there’s much more going on here and you could easily just see some elements as the back drop to other main events. Either way, the overall effect is as restorative as a day suffused with sunshine, trees and mountains.