Posts Tagged ‘Arcadia’

Lots of reviews of Lauren Groff‘s new novel, Matrix, reference her previous work, Fates and Furies, but as I read it, I kept thinking of the first book of Groff’s that I read, Arcadia. Arcadia was about a man who grew up in a utopian compound, and Matrix revisits the idea of an ideal community, this time in a 12th century abbey in England. It’s not ideal when the book opens and Marie de France arrives, sent by Eleanor of Aquitaine at the age of seventeen to be prioress. The abbey is poor and run down and the nuns are ill, old, and poorly organized. Marie, a large, homely woman who has already proven herself capable and strong in her short life, quickly takes things in hand. Matrix follows her life’s story as she makes the abbey prosperous, comes to love the community of nuns she cares for, and develops a distinctly matriarchal faith.

Marie is interesting, and not just because Groff creates a backstory that includes warrior aunts, a fairy ancestor, and women lovers including Queen Eleanor herself. I also enjoyed that Marie is both a smart and worldly leader and a mystic who has visions and writes poetry (the only bit of the real Marie de France’s story that is known). When still young Marie becomes Abbess, she realizes that the church leader with jurisdiction over the abbey “seems to believe this abbey of virgins to be a source of personal wealth.” Her response? “She must draw up herself a dummy account ledger to show the abbey’s great debt, which is false, for, she considers, to counter corruption, a similar corruption is only logical and right.”

Her visions give her spiritual and theological guidance — including an image of Eve and Mary in which Marie comes to see that rather than being the source of mankind’s fall and sinful nature, Eve is the first step towards mankind’s salvation, because she is Mary’s ancestress. But the visions also give her building projects — a labyrinth the cleverly hides the abbey from the well traveled roads which make it vulnerable, a building to house not only the Abbess’s quarters but also well appointed apartments for the wealthy widows who retire to the abbey (with their money) and schoolrooms for the young girls sent to learn how to be fine ladies (who will someday support the abbey they remember fondly), and a lock to harness a nearby marsh’s water supply, to divert it to the Abbey year round.

Marie’s own ambitions get her into trouble from time to time, but she maintains her rule, runs a network of spies in the great world beyond the abbey who keep her one (or more) steps ahead of both the crown and Rome, and manages to value her own abilities and achievements and those of her nuns while also maintaining her belief. She’s an astute manager, trusting her own judgement but also understanding when she needs diplomacy, prayer, or even forgiveness. And when Groff writes of Marie’s visions and views of the world, her prose sings, which is another way this book reminds me of Arcadia.

For Marie, Groff writes, “Good and evil live together; dark and light. Contradictions can be true at once. The world holds a great and pulsing terror at its center. The world is ecstatic in its very deeps.”

That is both beautiful and as true today as it was in the 12th century. This world is both beautiful and scary, and we live with contradictions that are true (and many that, as Marie herself would also affirm, are not). If you’re looking to escape all this into a beautiful, strange, and in its way, uplifting book, Matrix is a great choice. My only quibble is that I’m still considering the ending; I think I understand what Groff intended but it was strangely deflating for me. Still, I very much enjoyed Matrix.

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If you are a bookconscious regular you know I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk for a few weeks. This week, though, I was wowed. Arcadia by Lauren Groff is a book to stay with you.

First of all it’s beautiful. Groff’s language is so right. There are sentences I read again just for the sheer pleasure.  Take this paragraph from early in the book when Bit Stone, the main character, is still a small boy:

“Time comes to him one morning, stealing in. One moment he is looking at the lion puppet on his hand that he’s flapping about to amuse Eden’s russet potato of a baby, and the next he understands something he never knew to question. He sees it clearly, now, how time is flexible, a rubber band. It can stretch long and be clumped tight, can be knotted and folded over itself, and all the while it is endless, a loop. There will be night and then morning, and then night again. The year will end, another one will begin, will end. An old man dies, a baby is born.”

And to bookend that, here’s a passage from late in the book when Bit is fifty:

“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. Things bunch together, smooth endlessly out.”

Poetic, descriptive, emotive, evocative, lovely.

And the story? It felt completely original to me, which is hard to come by. It follows Bit from the legend of his birth in 1968 in a hippie caravan near Ridley, Wyoming through 2018, when he’s returned to the site of Arcadia, the utopian commune in upstate New York that his parents and their fellow travelers founded, to be with his mother. Groff paints the future as both bleak and hopeful — human recklessness still leads to suffering but so too does human compassion still heal.

Bit is one of the most interesting fictional characters you’ll ever meet, an old soul from birth, fragile but somehow emotionally invincible because of his natural tendency to be mindful, his enormous capacity for compassion and his unadulterated willingness to be vulnerable, to allow life to take him where it will.  Groff does not make him perfect, she does not give him an easy adulthood to make up for the vagaries of his strange childhood, she does not solve all of Bit’s problems. She lets readers peek at his soul, instead.

His family and friends, his loves, his child, are all incredibly finely drawn characters. Not one was hard to picture, not one was ever out of place or extraneous. Not a single subplot cluttered. As my grandmother used to say, everything counts in this book, there are no extra words. Writers should read Arcadia and try not to despair. Readers will find it a wondrous place to spend a few evenings.

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