I bought Arcadia by Lauren Groff for my mom for Christmas, and she enjoyed it so much that she lent it to me and recommended it to one of my book groups (my mom comes along when she is in town). I enjoyed this novel set on a 70’s commune, and we had some great discussions about it.
Bit (short for the “Tiniest Bit of a Hippie Ever”) was born in the back of a van to mom Hannah and dad Abe. Their wandering band of idealists start a commune soon after, in the woods and fields of western New York, with dreams of a utopian society where all material goods are shared in their self-sustaining society, living “pure and truthful lives.” Bit grows up in this rural place, isolated from the rest of the world, running wild with the rest of the Kid Herd.
He lives with Hannah and Abe in a bread truck on the Arcadia land, until the group manages to renovate an old mansion on the grounds. Though his parents clearly love him and are his primary caretakers, Bit has lots of other caring people to turn to if he ever needs help. However, not everything is perfect in this erstwhile paradise. Hannah suffers from sometimes crippling depression - especially in winter, they are all often cold and hungry, and their plans to share wealth equally and be self-sustaining never seem to fully come to fruition. Not everyone shares the same vision as Handy, the commune’s charismatic but lazy leader.
This novel is really Bit’s story: of his childhood, his adolescence among the ever-growing Arcadia, and his eventual adulthood and parenthood. His transition from the isolated world of the commune to the real world is fascinating, especially since Bit and his childhood pals seem to have different perceptions of their unusual childhood and different struggles in adapting to the outside world. Bit falls in love with one of his buddies from the Kid Herd and makes a life for himself, but eventually, events lead him back to what ‘s left of Arcadia.
Some people in our book group loved this novel (I was one of them) and a few people had some complaints with it, but everyone agreed it inspired a lot of good discussion! We talked about the pros and cons of the commune lifestyle, about the different parenting styles among its inhabitants and what it would have been like to grow up in that environment, and about the startling adjustment to the real world those kids had to eventually make. I don’t want to give away any plot points, but the last part of the book deals with some end-of-life issues that some of us found very moving. All in all, it is an engrossing story with some fascinating characters and a unique setting that I thoroughly enjoyed.