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Reviewletts: Contemporary (Dystopian?) Coming of Age Stories

It’s no secret that I have a little soft spot for dystopian fiction. And while I wouldn’t necessarily classify the two books I’m going to review here dystopias, both Arcadia by Lauren Groff and The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker have these currents of things falling apart running through them that I found very appealing. Ultimately though, what makes both of these books great reads in their main characters and the journey each goes though during the course of the novels.

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

arcadia lauren groff coverIn the fields of western New York State in the 1970s, a few dozen idealists set out to live off the land, founding what would become a commune centered on the grounds of a decaying mansion called Arcadia House. Arcadia follows this romantic, rollicking, and tragic utopian dream from its hopeful start through its heyday and after. Arcadia’s inhabitants include Handy, a musician and the group’s charismatic leader; Astrid, a midwife; Abe, a master carpenter; Hannah, a baker and historian; and Abe and Hannah’s only child, the book’s protagonist, Bit, who is born soon after the commune is created. While Arcadia rises and falls, Bit, too, ages and changes. If he remains in love with the peaceful agrarian life in Arcadia and deeply attached to its residents — including Handy and Astrid’s lithe and deeply troubled daughter, Helle — how can Bit become his own man? How will he make his way through life and the world outside of Arcadia where he must eventually live? (Source)

At the beginning of the year, Jeff O’Neal and I had a conversation about Arcadia as part of Book Riot’s Tournament of Books reading project. He really didn’t like the book, in part because of a disconnect between what he thought the book would be about (the people of Arcadia) and what the book actually was about (Bit’s coming of age story in and out of Arcadia). And while to some extent I agree with his impressions, I didn’t mind that the focus of the book was Bit more than it was Arcadia proper. Arcadia is a place and an idea, an idealized version of what the world can be (but also can’t be for long) that informs everything that Bit is throughout his life. Couple that with Lauren Groff’s truly magnificent writing style, and you had a book I enjoyed a lot. I’m not as over-the-moon as I was about The Monster’s of Templeton, but loved it quite a bit on it’s own.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

the age of miracles karen thompson walker coverOn a seemingly ordinary Saturday in a California suburb, Julia and her family awake to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow. The days and nights grow longer and longer, gravity is affected, the environment is thrown into disarray. Yet as she struggles to navigate an ever-shifting landscape, Julia is also coping with the normal disasters of everyday life — the fissures in her parents’ marriage, the loss of old friends, the hopeful anguish of first love, the bizarre behavior of her grandfather who, convinced of a government conspiracy, spends his days obsessively cataloging his possessions. As Julia adjusts to the new normal, the slowing inexorably continues. (Source)

The Age of Miracles did exactly what I love small dystopian novels to do: it took a premise, accepted it was true, and then moved on to explore the possible consequences, both big and small. And while I care that the big consequences of the premise feel true, I’m always more interested in the small consequences. In this case, what does it mean to be 12 years old, a loner and an outcast, with a crush on a boy while the world is slowly spinning out of control (in this case, almost literally)? I devoured this book in a single sitting, and while it certainly wasn’t perfect it was more than enough for me.

Disclosure: I bought my copy of Arcadia and borrowed The Age of Miracles from my local library. 

Photo Credit: albertogp123 via Flickr

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  • Nikki Steele February 7, 2013, 9:21 am

    I really enjoyed Arcadia. While I wished we could have “been” in Arcadia more in the novel, I do agree that the whole novel could not have taken place there. Like many things, it was the immediacy and fragility of the times there that Bit remembers throughout his life. Those are often the most consuming of memories.

    Been meaning to read The Age of Miracles but keep hearing mixed reviews on it. Glad to know that your recommendation is a solid good one.

    • Kim February 10, 2013, 8:16 am

      Yeah, I think the fact that it doesn’t take place entirely in Arcadia is part of the point — Arcadia as Bit remembers it can’t exist for very long which is part of what makes it sad and wonderful.

      I think there are some flaws with Age of Miracles, but I was absorbed by it despite seeing some of those. I think it’s worth trying, at least.

  • Trisha February 7, 2013, 10:55 am

    I can see how one could go into Arcadia thinking the place would be more central than it actually is.

    I’ve toyed with picking up the Age of Miracles, and I think now I must.

  • Jeanne February 7, 2013, 11:36 am

    My daughter loves reading anything set in these kinds of dystopian worlds. I’m not sure they’re good for her, since she’s very anxious, but she would love them. Hmm.

    • Kim February 10, 2013, 8:19 am

      Age of Miracles is probably the more anxiety-ridden book of the two (given that a lot of what happens seems similar to things that are already happening to our planet).

  • bermudaonion(Kathy) February 7, 2013, 4:44 pm

    The Age of Miracles sounds like the one for me.

  • Jenny February 7, 2013, 6:44 pm

    The Age of Miracles was totally different to what I was expecting, but I love the term “small dystopian novel”. It’s an excellent description of The Age of Miracles! I thought the stuff with the piano teacher (Sylvia?) was particularly interesting and unexpected.

    • Kim February 10, 2013, 8:22 am

      Me too! I loved that story and the whole idea of the real timers and how society splits over something that seems as immutable as the length of a day.

  • Jennifer February 8, 2013, 8:41 am

    I liked both of those. If I had to vote between them I’d take Arcadia 🙂

  • Charlie February 8, 2013, 8:52 am

    Arcadia sounds interesting, though I’m of the thought that finding out more about the commune would be better. The Age of Miracles I plan to read, it’s a frightening concept but could just come true, and it’s fascinating at the same time. I’m interested to see how the author balances the environment with the characters’ lives, because surely the globe slowing would take over regular life. I do like what you say about how it relates to Julia’s life, however. That sounds good.

    • Kim February 10, 2013, 8:25 am

      The whole world slowing thing is a huge part of the book, but since the narrator is 12 a lot of that gets to stay in the background while she worries about the things that 12-year-olds worry about. I think that helps it from getting to stuck on the cause of the dystopia.

  • Joanna February 10, 2013, 11:52 am

    The Age of Miracles is on my TBR list. I also like to read about the people who are in these possible future situations – I mean, we won’t stop being human so the little things will still happen and will still matter.