In the early 1970s, a small, idealistic group forms a commune on the land surrounding an abandoned mansion in rural New York State. They call the commune Arcadia, and here they plan to live off the land and free themselves of the greed, inequality, and complexities of the outside world. Ridley Sorrel “Bit” Stone is the first child born in the commune, and it is through his eyes that we see Arcadia. Bit is a quiet child always considered small for his age, but from early on he is smart and observant. No detail of the world of Arcadia escapes his notice, including his mother Hannah’s depression and his father Abe’s disagreements with Handy, the commune’s charismatic leader. Despite its flaws and failing ideals, Bit loves this world in which he grew up and can’t imagine ever living outside it.

When Bit is a teenager, however, conflict and tragedy tear Arcadia apart, and he is thrust into the outside world for the first time. The rest of the novel is about Bit’s adulthood in a world completely unlike the one of his childhood. He certainly adjusts to urban life as best he can, but for better or worse, Bit is never completely free of the influence of Arcadia—and especially not the influence of Helle, Handy’s charming but unstable daughter.

Arcadia is a short yet somewhat slow novel, though Lauren Groff wisely highlights important periods of Bit’s life rather than detailing every single year and event. While the measured pace might make you anxious for something more to be happening, it makes a lot of sense. This is a novel about seeing and appreciating the world around you and keeping your connections to loved ones strong, and in order to do these things, you often need to slow down everything else in your life. It is meditative and driven much more by characters and themes than by plot. While the plot occasionally stretched my suspension of disbelief, I never stopped enjoying the vivid details of the Arcadia, its inhabitants, and its aftermath. I found Bit Stone to be an insightful and sympathetic protagonist and liked the big cast of characters, though they did sometimes become difficult to keep straight in my mind.

I think what pleased me most about Arcadia and what says the most about Lauren Groff’s writing is that while there is certainly a somewhat whimsical tone to the book, I never found it overdone. While I criticized Vaclav & Lena last year for being too “cute” and self-consciously quirky even as its plot became more serious, Lauren Groff manages to avoid that trap in Arcadia. She consistently writes in the present-tense and uses very descriptive language from beginning to end, but she also knows when to employ a more fanciful voice and when to use a more realistic one. As a result, she is able to keep a magical, otherworldly atmosphere in the novel without sacrificing believable characters and relationships.

Arcadia never comes to a definite conclusion as to whether one should choose a life in the country communing with nature or a city life more connected to the “real world.” Such a conclusion is unnecessary, though, and would take away from the point of the book. Bit’s lives in the country and the city both have their problems; neither one is free of arguments or disappointments. What his story demonstrates is that life can be difficult no matter where you live, but it can also be beautiful, whether you’re a hippie on a rural commune or a resident of the nation’s biggest city. There will always be fascinating details to discover, new people to meet, and relationships to build and rebuild. It’s a lovely message from an equally lovely novel.