You know that moment when something shifts in your life – something big – and you don’t know if anything will ever be the same again? Arcadia is full of those moments.
Bit Stone is a sensitive young boy living with his parents – and dozens of other people – in a commune called Arcadia in the woods of New York. It was the 70s… need I explain further? In this first of four sections of the book, you can taste the utopian idealism and fervor with which Bit’s parents, Abe and Hannah, and the leader, Handy, build their dream – literally. There is an old mansion on the property, and Abe spearheads a full renovation such that all Arcadians will have somewhere to call home (that isn’t a camper trailer or lean-to). We meet a colorful bouquet of characters, from midwives to gatekeepers.
Flash forward to Bit’s teen years. The commune has grown exponentially from hippies and trippies showing up on the promise of the perfect civilization away from civilization. There are people everywhere, camping on the lawn and in the woods, drawing on Arcadia’s limited resources. Abe and Hannah are exhausted from trying to hold it all together; Handy has all but checked out.
Meanwhile, Bit is grappling with the failings of his parents and mentors, as well as his raging hormones. He has fallen inexplicably in love with Handy’s daughter, Helle. Both raised in Arcadia, they seem to have a common understanding of one another, if very different temperaments. Helle is brash and unpredictable; Bit is reliable and caring. He spends much of his time keeping tabs on her, delving into an angst-y love.
The original Arcadians try in vain to hold the group together, but the pressures of feeding the masses prove to be too great, and Arcadia falls apart. Slowly, everyone packs and leaves. Helle and her siblings are shipped off to Norway to be with their grandmother; the Stone family moves to the city.
Flash forward again, and it is present day. Bit is a photography professor at the university, and he has a four year old daughter, Grete, who adores him. We learn quickly that Bit and Helle reconnected and married some years before. But now Helle has disappeared – just went on a walk and never came back. That was nine month ago, and Bit and Grete are both struggling to make sense of it. “Helle was so troubled, honey,” Abe tells Bit. Troubled, but so well loved by Bit and Grete. Bit can’t seem to reconcile that.
The final section is set ten years in the future. Global warming has hit critical mass and disease is spreading through much of the world. Hundreds of thousands have died. Bit and Grete move from the city to deal with Abe and Hannah’s end of life, while also escaping the disaster. They live in the house Abe built on the Arcadia property, bringing everything full circle. It gives the Stone family a chance to reconnect, to heal.
Graff’s loopy, lyrical prose was hard for me to follow at times. The sing-song cadence felt unnatural and overblown, so the book started out very slowly. I debated putting it down, but the story picked up steam in the second section. By the end, I appreciated the story arc, juxtaposing the extreme idealism of Bit’s youth with the disillusionment of his late adult life.
That juxtaposition highlights the main theme of the book: control, or lack there of. In each section, the characters – whether Bit and the Arcadians or the world at large – are trying to reign in something greater than themselves. The book shows just how little control we are really have: your childhood home can vanish; your wife can walk out and never return; the human population can be threatened with disease. Everything has a way of taking on a life of its own, whether you want it to or not. What is important, we learn from Bit, is in how to move forward anyways, taking one breath at a time.
What I appreciated most about Bit’s character was his resilience. He never lost his deep sensitivity and channeled that into forging deep relationships with his daughter, parents, and friends. Despite all of their failings, he loved them fiercely.
I liked Arcadia. Although it wasn’t a page-turner, I really appreciated the characters and their rich emotional lives. By the end, I got the sense that even though their lives were constantly shaken, everything would be okay.
Did you like Arcadia? Were there other themes in the book that resonated with you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!