ARCADIA, by Lauren Groff. Voice / Hyperion, 291 pp., $25.99
The rise and fall of a 1960s commune is at the heart of Lauren Groff's second novel, "Arcadia," the follow-up to her much-celebrated "The Monsters of Templeton." Although this utopian community is founded as a means to empower and unite people, over the years it evolves into a destructive force that shatters a number of lives.
Ridley Sorrel Stone, known as "Bit," lives with his parents, Abe and Hannah, in Arcadia, a vegan commune in western New York. It's led by a charismatic guru, Handy, who has a "main" wife, Astrid, with whom he has four children, and a second wife, Lila. Never mind that he's a terrible father and engaging in affairs with 18-year-old girls. Handy always knows how to work his charm -- "there is a switch inside him that he can flick on and off."
As Abe explains one day to Bit, their community exists on the perimeter of society: "Pure," he says. "Live with the land, not on it. Live outside the evil of commerce and make our own lives from scratch. Let our love be a beacon to light up the world." The children learn to chop wood, play guitar, knit, bake and "make anything at all from soy."
While Abe is "beamy and talky," eager to please, Hannah, guarded and depressed, often cuts herself off from the community. She becomes increasingly cynical about Arcadia's bizarre rules -- no one is allowed to wear contact lenses, for instance, because "they separate you from the spiritual world." Hannah is among the first to complain about its dire dysfunction, such as overcrowding and a lack of food. Over time, Arcadia declines into sheer chaos, with internal fighting, grabs for power, crippling debt, police raids and hundreds of Arcadians charged with selling drugs.
Bit, innocent and optimistic, is a wonderful protagonist -- he's a quiet, sensitive, observant boy who understands that there is always "what happens on the surface, and there is what pulls beneath." When he can't cope with what's around him, he retreats to dreams. "The world is sometimes too much for Bit," Groff writes, "too full of terror and beauty. Every day he finds himself squeezed under a new astonishment." He often struggles to lift his mother from depression, and suffers guilt when he can't. When he falls in love with a fellow Arcadian named Helle, one of Handy's troubled daughters, he finds a welcome distraction from worrying about his mother's well-being. Bit's intense relationship with Helle lasts for decades, but it will leave him grief-stricken and alone in the end.
"Arcadia" spans a 50-year period, tracing Bit's escape from Arcadia to "the gritty Outside" at the age of 14, a transition that proves a difficult and painful adjustment. "He knew nobody and filled his time by walking for hours," Groff writes. Yet Bit makes his way to college at Cornell, and learns to achieve a kind of peace with the Outside. Eventually, he settles with his daughter, Grete, in New York City, where he teaches photography at a university and cares for his ailing parents from afar. Groff captures beautifully the sense of loss and regret that Bit endures, especially as he enters middle age: "Grief as a low-grade fever. His sadness is a hive at the back of his head: he moves slowly to keep from being stung."
At the end of the novel, Bit reminds himself that to keep going, it's crucial to pay attention "not to the grand gesture, but to the passing breath." In a sense, this describes what Lauren Groff has achieved with this fine novel. Throughout, she's attentive to the smallest details, and "Arcadia" builds its power in a subtle, cumulative way. Somehow the author manages an epic sweep with her narrative, yet one that also feels intimate and concentrated. Arguably, in the novel's final section, an Indonesia-based pandemic tossed into the plot seems a slight misstep. But Groff is out to show us that peace "can be shattered in a million variations," and she offers an ending that's both tragic and hopeful -- one in which life for Bit is not exactly good, but it's good enough, at least for the moment.