This was one of the best books I’ve read this year. I’d vaguely heard of Groff before (I’m pretty sure she’s had work in The New Yorker, but I can’t remember anything specific that she’s written), and didn’t know anything about this book when I picked it up. I devoured it though–it is SO good.
Arcadia is a hippie commune in upstate New York in the 1970’s. It’s an idyllic place, at least at first, based on the concepts of free love and hard work and community. Bit, the novel’s protagonist, has been there all his life–his parents, Abe and Hannah, joined when he was a baby. The Arcadians are like his family; the originals, led by Handy, their charismatic leader, are all he’s ever known. The book follows Bit through childhood into his adult life, tracing the rise and fall of Arcadia in an increasingly hostile world.
This book reminded me of two others: Drop City, by T.C. Boyle (another book about a hippie commune, this one set in Alaska–it’s very good) and Room, by Emma Donoghue (plot-wise, it’s different, but the naive and sheltered narrator reminded me a lot of Bit). Arcadia is better than both of those, though. Bit is a fantastic narrator–he’s sweet and observant and completely lovable. It’s always a challenging task for an author to take on a child narrator, because of the inevitable sense of unreliability that comes with these characters. It works here, though. Bit’s innocence and lack of knowledge of the world outside Arcadia are compelling, and I think the novel wouldn’t have been as strong if it had been narrated by an adult Arcadian. The fact that Bit has only ever known this world is fascinating, and his perspective is really powerful. I really cared for Bit–he was such a real character that it was easy to form an attachment to him.
The rest of the characters are great as well, and Groff deftly avoids hippie stereotypes. There’s certainly a lot of pot-smoking and unattached sex and unsupervised children, but it’s all organic to this world and doesn’t feel excessive. Her implicit criticisms of Arcadia (and other such well-intentioned utopias) are made clear, but Groff also allows you to see the allure of such communities, and does a good job of highlighting the positives along with the negatives. She doesn’t condemn these ways of life; she thoughtfully presents why they don’t work, and how (potentially) they could.
I really don’t have any criticisms of this novel–it was brilliantly written, engaging, and just flat-out awesome. Go read it. You won’t regret it.