Arcadia | Ex Umbra En Solem

Halfway through Arcadia by Lauren Groff I had this to say:

At the point in the story that I said that – Bit is a teenage boy who teaches me that George Eliot is actually a British WOMAN writer and not a man.  This is a fact, I’ve googled it.  He’s the too-smart boyfriend.  The LSD is the drug of choice, beyond the simple natural high of marijuana, the smell of fields and burnt grass blades in your throat, the pond water aftertaste like algae and a distant gulp of bullfrogs.  (This is all in my imagination, of course).

It wasn’t until the end of the book that I really felt the truth of my final description, “an acre of dandelions to breathe flight into.”  There’s something so honest, so haunting, so invisible and sacred about this book.  I was wholly moved by this novel and I wasn’t expecting it, which made the change in my chest when I finished that last line, wonderful.

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

I found this book so impeccable because it was weaving too many histories together.  It’s as if every continent has an Arcadia.  In the US, Arcadia is in Downstate, New York.  I asked my parents (who are from Buffalo) about it earlier today.  Not only is she weaving history, but she has this organic way of making nature and wilderness the heart of the story, rather than the characters.  I’m sure I’ve thought about it, but lately, I’ve been thinking more about the way space defines humanity.  Since Philadelphia I’ve been thinking about space, setting, and how one person has effect on a setting and that setting has a different effect on every one person.

I’ve found myself growing up in a suburban neighborhood with similar floor plans in every house, children with too-large helmets pushed back on their neck, double swing sets.  How my life has been polite and more importantly how I’ve grown up surrounded by the lush of oaks, their veins showing through the leaves like the ones through my wrist.  I know the seep of sap down bark, and the smell just before snow when the air is crisp and lonely and gray.

But what if I grew up with Philadelphia surrounded by metal and abandoned row houses, or India surrounded by people who share the smog, or Hawaii where I surfed all day without fear of salt water in my eyes or the jaws of a shark, or anywhere really.  What is it to develop in space, certain space.  What is it to know trees, or clean air, or white sand.  I don’t know. I can physically tell my home has made me safe, made me have control over myself that I wouldn’t otherwise. However, I haven’t grown enough to really see how it’s affected me rationally, or emotionally.  I think it’s been easier, but who am I to judge the weight of burden.

Lauren Groff has this delicate way of getting at how nature defines and how we are barefoot and lovely within it.  Obviously she had to dive into Bit’s growing up in a hippie commune (Arcadia) and the way it’s affected his future.  She weaves him so seamlessly in as a helper and this doesn’t change once he leaves Arcadia as he grows and aches.  He’s still compassionate.  Arcadia has an effect on everyone within it, Helle is still wild, still unforgotten, still bereft.  Hannah is stilled to sorrow over and over, and still in love with Abe.  Abe is all man, bearded, forceful.  They all stay this way past Arcadia which is an ode to the way our setting, our childhood, our environment stays within us.

This isn’t a foreign concept, I’m sure everyone has seen themselves in the light of their home but it’s just now dawning on me how much of ourselves we fold into the envelope of home, or blame on home, or find in home.  Miranda Lambert gets at this in her song The House that Built Me.

“I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
This brokenness inside me might start healing
Out here it’s like I’m someone else
I thought that maybe I could find myself
If I could just come in I swear I’ll leave
Won’t take nothing but a memory
From the house that built me”

How much does our past, our home, those porch steps that my father calked together, crumbling at the sides, half covered in ivy and those night slugs in summer build us?

And then the question is: What do we do with what’s built?  Do we leave and collide back with home, with the smell, and the hardwood?  Do we stay always, pack photos and shadows in boxes in the garage and keep living?  Do we leave and not turn back, never think about how we’re formed?  Do we build stronger, sturdier houses, or similar houses, or completely divide ourselves between people of that home and people of this new one, this strange one, this one without the smells of my mother’s hairspray and the burnt food below the stove coils?

I don’t know. I wanted Arcadia to answer these questions, but it didn’t, and that was okay.

Arcadia tells the life of Bit which seems an odd choice for a name, but then he’s this bit of everything, this bit of everyone,  and this bit of history, a newborn had in a snowstorm.  He’s the purest child of Arcadia filled with everyone’s sorrow, or missteps, or mumbled words.  He spends a childhood hovering over his mother while she sleeps.  He is the child who doesn’t speak and everyone thinks is “retarded” because he holds the damn of everyone’s sadness and until they are awake and brilliant again, he holds it in, even laughing in silence.

Bit is just a wonderful human being and he’s a great character to spend three-hundred pages with because you want to know him, and he seems to have the recipe for strength.

With Bit is his mother Hannah who comes off in the beginning as a fold of skin and sunlight, but then by the end is this archetypal older woman.  Her husband, Bit’s father is Abe who is very much Abraham Lincoln as a hippie in a commune with a work ethic of an ox.  Handy, who I haven’t even talked about yet, is the kind of the King of the Commune, almost reaching into cult-king.  He spends his days with his wives who are created solely through sex, instead of working like his beehive of hippies that keep up the bakery, the house, the gardens and farms, etc.   Then there’s the minors, the friends, and in the last part (of the four) is Grete who is Bit’s daughter.  She ages from baby to fourteen in the last half of the book and holds the best of all his worlds.  She is obviously, the continuing of Arcadia in a vibrant world of NYC.

It’s interesting to think about this concept (I won’t drown it with analyzation) but what do we carry of home, and what do our children then carry of our home.  What do they keepsake?  I write a lot of stories about my grandparents (mostly grandmother’s) because I keep those tidbits that my mom shares of Grandma Shealy, or the gentle rocking of Grandma Celestina.  I’m not sure why. If you asked me today what I think when I type her name, I’ll say the yellow velvet king chair in the bedroom of my Aunt Nancy, at the top of the stairs under the red light of the room.  My Aunt Nancy said in passing, “that chair she always used to sit in” and now I live it in my head.  I never even met her.

Just something to think about. I’m full of over-analyzation tonight.

I know now after finishing Arcadia that it’s less about the drugs, the naked gardeners, the expanse of a house that fits two-hundred families, and more about the place.

When you’re young you think, “I want to live in a place that….”

  • has a moat.
  • has no reptiles.
  • owns a chocolate factory.
  • holds the golden ticket.
  • is green.
  • is happy.
  • has faeries.
  • inhabits Dr. Suess’ characters.
  • serves marmalade.

It’s why books like The Secret Garden were written, Alice in Wonderland, any Dr. Suess Book, Where the Sidewalk Ends…We let these homes, these plots, these small spaces of the infinite universe share their stories with us while we build ours on their soil and in my case, Carolina orange mud.

Isn’t it the most correct thing that we’re given a place at birth, one cleaved blank space in the world?

24 thoughts on “Arcadia | Ex Umbra En Solem

  1. zettew says:


    I received this book as an ARC and haven’t read it yet – but its place in my TBR pile is more firmly ensconced after reading your review!

  2. Bea says:

    As you know, I love that song by Miranda Lambert. It really hit “home” with me. It made me think of my childhood and my Mother. I realized after hearing the song, that she was the house that built me. You see, we moved alot, but she was the one constant in my home.
    With all that said, your book sounds wonderful and like a book I would enjoy reading. Good blog!

  3. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    I know how much of a fan you are and have been waiting for your review on this, ignoring all the others because I know none will be as true to its content as yours.

    Love all that you say of how where we grow up shapes us in some way and though we may physically leave we do retain much of those spaces and places in our memory and being.

    • Cassie says:

      I do love her so much. This book still didn’t reach the height of Delicate Edible Birds but it has BEAUTIFUL language (which you know I love) and the story unfolds at a really wonderfully slow pace (at time nauseating, but lovely). It was just interesting because it wasn’t overdone, and I’m not sure how to do that yet in my own writing. I also over-write and over-analyze and she really tried to under-write I think in this one.

      It’s great. Read it! :) And then blog about it so I can know what you think.

      • Cassie says:

        Yes, Delicate Edible Birds is definitely a book you buy and hoard. Arcadia is great for the Kindle because it’s not a book (well I feel like) that you will look back on to figure out how to write something, or to study.

      • Claire 'Word by Word' says:

        You must read ‘The Snow Child’ Cassie, I am sure you will love the writing and the story. Just finished ‘State of Wonder’, no poetry, I think that’s what it lacks for me, feel very sad that it didin’t ignite anything, how to define that magic and truely understand it.

      • Cassie says:

        Claire — I have looked at The Snow Child about one-hundred times in B&N. I always pick it up and I always find something that speaks to me just a tweak more. I will get it now that I have your recommendations.

        I don’t read Anne Patchett anymore after not being able to finish Bel Canto and finding the controversy over Truth and Beauty. For some reason, I just dislike her as a person more than an author, even though I don’t even know her – how insane. I think what put me over the edge with her was her NY Times article on the Pulitzer and how on the side she was of publishing companies and American Fiction that she didn’t see it from every angle. I’m TOTALLY bias over her. That may be the only book I don’t read on the Orange Prize list.

    • Cassie says:

      Thank you dear. My pile is never ending too. It’s daunting to think of all the books that you’ll never read in a lifetime (so don’t think about it). :)

    • Cassie says:

      Get it. Did you read Delicate Edible Birds because it’s one of my favorite books EVER EVER EVER. I just want her to keep writing so I can keep reading, haha. And thank you, thank you for being slayed. :)


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