Brenda's Reviews > Arcadia

Arcadia by Lauren Groff
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Feb 01, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: first-reads
Read from May 14 to 21, 2012

First let me say, an introvert like me does not belong in a commune. Still, I could appreciate the colorful community that Lauren Groff creates to populate her second novel. I was particularly struck/surprised by the fairy tale elements that crept into the narrative (why, I'm not sure, since I did read Groff's previous novel The Monsters of Templeton).

Early in Arcadia, the protagonist (Ridley Sorrel Stone, mostly known as Bit) discovers an old collection of Grimm tales in the ruins of the building that will eventually become home to the commune:

"At first he sees an illustration. It is the most vivid thing in all of Arcadia House; it sucks the daylight into it. A girl with a squinched face seems to be using her cut-off finger for a key. On another page, there is a tiny man who splits himself in two while blood spills gouts from his wounds. On another, a girl in a long dress walks beside lions, her mouth open, her hair up in a furry acorn hat" (33).

Although Bit is no Rumplestiltskin, he is small, hence the nickname. In the first section ("City of the Sun"), the five-year-old Bit is described as "a mote of a boy." As he grows into a small man, he is often perceived as gentle, as unthreatening. He certainly represents all that is childlike and idealistic in the Arcadia community. But he also feels torn (split in two) when attempting to save the ones he loves. He gets caught up in "magical thinking," partially due to the influence of the fairy tale volume. He goes through a protracted period of mutism, for example, because he becomes convinced that he can rescue his mother from a spell (what adults would call depression). His silence is inspired by the story of the sister who cannot speak while she is attempting to break the curse that turns her brothers into swans.

The girl/woman Bit later comes to love(Helle)represents the grimmer truths of Arcadia when,years later, she challenges Bit's perspective:

"I can't believe you don't remember. It was cold...We were never warm. We never had enough to eat. We never had enough clothes. I had to wake up every single night to someone fucking someone in the Pink Piper. Everywhere I was smelled like spunk. Handy [her father] let me drink the acid Slap-Apple when I was like five. What kind of hallucinations does a five-year-old have? For two months, I saw flames coming out of my mother's mouth every time she talked. We were like guests at the Mad Hatter's table, but didn't even know the world was flipped around" (201).

In another scene from Bit's adolescence, Groff draws on the motif of fairy world gone wrong when he tries acid for the first (and only?) time:

"In this little hole at the base of the hill, the old stories fill him up again, the forest thick with magic, witches sitting in the cruxes of trees. This happens whenever he's not protecting himself: the dark bad fairies are dancing endlessly below him in halls filled with rush light, in fur coats made of squirrel tails, in little shoes whittled from bear claws. They are planning their tricks, the beasties. If they saw him, they would blow poison nettles at him and make him fall asleep there, to awaken a century later, Bit van Winkle, his life gone by in sleep. He is so terrified he starts to cry, then forgets his fear in the beauty of his fingernails shining in the moonlight" (143).

I stress these moments, lifted from fairy tale, to emphasize the manner in which Groff incorporates folkloric motifs in a novel that might seem too twentieth-century for such a magical mindset.

Despite the horrors that occur during the evening of Bit's acid trip, he continues to resemble the younger brother of fairy tale. He does not turn into an angry, disillusioned Rumplestiltskin, though later life will bring disappointment and grief to his tale. I think it is Bit's ability to see as if through fairy stone that enables him to survive both Arcadia and, later,the world outside.
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