Does no one want to read about a utopian community that actually succeeds? Lauren Groff’s second novel, Arcadia (following her well-received debut, The Monsters Of Templeton) is a chronicle of ’70s commune living loosely based on the real-life intentional community of Oneida, New York. Groff covers the rise and fall of the fictional Arcadia, but is too forceful and obvious in spelling out its doom, even as her narrator is uniquely positioned to appreciate its complex legacy.
Members of the self-sufficient community known as Arcadia (established on a trust-funder’s farm in upstate New York) share all property, make every decision by general council, and raise their children in one wild band. Through the eyes of Bit, the son of original members Abe and Hannah, and the first child born in the commune, Arcadia is a lovely and lonely place ready to be explored, but confusing: Abe swears they’re happy there, but Hannah ducks out of work duty and cries every day, while the commune’s charismatic leader, Handy, leaves for months at a time and enjoys special privileges. As he grows older and Arcadia falls on hard times, hiring out its members as day laborers and growing pot to raise money, Bit weighs the possibility of leaving against the unknown threats of the outside world, until the commune’s dissolution makes that decision for him.
Arcadia’s contrast between the sweetness of communal living and the outside world’s venality and intrusiveness is heavy-handed even before Bit’s parents start openly talking about defecting to the “Outside.” Envisioning Bit as precocious enough to see that rot creeping in at an early age (along with other conclusions clearly beyond his ken) additionally hampers her narrative; if he’s so smart, why can’t he save Arcadia? Groff uses her theory about why Arcadia fails as a backdrop to the lives of Bit and his compatriots outside the community, but their lives as adults feel like stock parts, never filled out.
Only in the book’s later sections featuring adult Bit—who finally grows into his preternatural powers of observation—does Groff achieve the balance she’s aiming at in depicting the depths of his pining for a place that never existed. The former Arcadians’ inability to ascribe blame for their fall becomes Arcadia’s problem, but with distance, Bit is able to isolate the sweet moments, as Groff does in her early chapters without shrouding them in foreshadowing.