Arcadia, by Lauren Groff
This book should quickly clear up any romantic notions you might have about how idyllic it might have been to live on a commune in the 60s. True, it’s fiction, but the numerous ways it could go wrong (winter, infidelity, bad parenting, rock star egos, and outhouses, to name but a few) are so convincingly portrayed that I found myself searching the author’s bio to see if she might have done time in one herself.
The story is told from the viewpoint of one of Arcadia’s children. Bit is the son of Abe, the commune’s main carpenter, and Hannah, a baker and historian. A child narrator can be a difficult feat to pull off effectively — make the kid too smart, and it doesn’t ring true; too childish, and it feels like reading a children’s book — but Groff makes it work. In this case, the story is told from Bit’s viewpoint, but in the third person. We watch him struggle to cure his mother’s winter depression, to grow up in this inbred and limiting world that he loves, to imagine finding love and a life for himself outside the community. Arcadia’s members interact occasionally with the people of a nearby Amish community, and while the two groups are wildly different in politics, sexual behavior, and musical taste, it’s hard to miss how alike they are in the grip they have on the individual.
Near the end of the book, Bit has a conversation with Glory, who grew up in the Amish community, left and worked an IT job, then returned.
Why’d you leave the world, Glory? Bit says. Why did you come back?
She stands and shrugs. It is lonely, she says. Five years, I was lonely. Then I realized that I was not happy, and would do anything to be taken in and loved. It seems a give-and-take, you know? Freedom or community, community or freedom. One must decide the way one wants to live. I chose community.
Why can’t you have both? says Grete, frowning. I think you could have both.
You want both, Glory says, you are destined to fail.
But Bit, after a lifetime of effort, manages to find himself a sweet spot in between.
author photo: Sarah McKune