The main character in Lauren Groff's engaging novel, Arcadia, grows up to become a photography professor who knows that for most of his students, his classes are way stations into a hobby.
"But his job, as he understands it," Groff writes, "is to help his students see: to make them pay attention, slow down and appreciate what they're doing. This is something they can use in life."
In a way, that's what Groff does by way of lovely writing and memorable characters who are haunted by the past. She makes us slow down and pay attention to a story that at first doesn't seem promising.
Ridley "Bit" Stone, the generous and gentle professor, is the child of hippies. He grew up on a commune, which like most hippie communes, rose and fell on its own excesses
The premise seems predictable: how dreams of living "with the land, not on it" crash into economic reality and human foibles that are complicated by drugs and sex. And won't the children of childish hippies end up rebelling against their rebellious parents?
But Groff's novel grew on me from its opening, in 1968, and as it stretches, with periodic interruptions, into the future that is 2018.
The commune, Arcadia, in upstate New York, was once home to hundreds. Decades later, its demise is summed up by a neighbor, an Amish woman who knows the tensions between community and freedom.
"Too much freedom, it rots things in communities, quick," she says. "That was the problem with your Arcadia."
The story is told mostly from the perspective of Bit, who weighs three pounds when he's born in a hippie caravan.
At 6, he struggles to teach himself to read (which he does) and to understand the world that's Arcadia (that would take a lifetime). At 14, he sees the commune collapse. Internal struggles are more to blame than a violent police drug bust.
Decades later, he's teaching in New York, with a 3-year-old daughter. His wife, another child of Arcadia, has disappeared. And finally, in 2018, in a world threatened by an epidemic and global warming, Bit returns to Arcadia with his mother, who's dying, and his daughter, who's now 14.
But it's not so much the story as the storytelling that grabbed me. It builds on the talents Groff displayed in her 2008 debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, which re-imagined the myths of the author's hometown, Cooperstown, N.Y.
In Arcadia, Bit thinks, his parents were once happy and he was happy as a child. Or was he?, he wonders and concludes, "Best to distrust this retrospective radiance: gold dust settles over memory and makes it shine."