Five stars for Lauren Groff’s Florida. Five! Guys, I’m just gonna say that I rarely award five stars to books, but I’m going two for two in my Magpie Book Club picks. (See my thoughts on last month’s pick.)
Where to begin? When I think about this collection, I have two separate and immediate reactions:
First, I’m overwhelmed by the feeling of Florida that seeps throughout the entire collection: the heat, the tangle, the overgrown marshiness, the wilderness. The characters are almost always oppressed by their natural environment, antagonized by it. The language and pace and certainly the imagery are heady with Floridianess, and as you read, it’s almost like inhaling the aroma of a juicy red wine overripe with fruit: it’s thick smell hits you before you even taste it. (Did anyone else feel like they were sweating while reading the collection?) So why Florida? For one, the author is constantly in negotiation with climate change, hyper-aware and doomsday-ish about the imminent implosion or destruction of the world as we know it, so much so that we end the entire collection with the image of a young boy performing the end of the world with a big bang amidst rocks on the beach. Florida is a natural landscape in which to play out and call attention to these environmental concerns, given the lush prominence of its natural features and its oppressive heat. The proximity of the ocean and the frequency of hurricanes and other tropical storms in Florida are also convenient accessories to many of the stories’ end-of-the-world narratives. Groff also uses the drama of these natural threats to offset or mirror the volatility — the vulnerability, truly — of the narrow personal dramas of the individual, which are so often set inside, in a domestic setting: a widow battling her demons inside a house she once owned with her philandering husband while a hurricane rages outside; two girls abandoned in a ramshackle beach cottage, struggling with the loss of their mother, while snakes, blistering heat, alligators threaten to kill them; a wife battling rage toggling between a too-quiet home life and too-wild evening walks around the neighborhood (and that wilderness can take the shape of stray, vicious dogs; sinkholes; or rapists and other miscreants). I felt the push and pull of the domestic versus the natural world to leave so many of the characters (occasionally literally) caught between a rock and a hard place.
Second, I left each story with a heaviness not unlike the oppressive heat so present in many of her stories. I was overwhelmed by the haplessness of so many of the characters — their fraught relationships, their listless flailings against the status quo, their internalization of so many of the traumas of our times. But mainly I was disturbed by the loss of innocence that we see in so many of the children in this book. In one short story, Groff alludes to the story of Adam and Eve, original sin, the fall from innocence (and snakes — a clever stand-in for Satan — play a prominent role throughout the book) — and I saw that narrative played out so many times, so brutally, throughout the collection, that at some point I felt like reading the book was like donning one of those protective vests you wear at the dentists while being x-rayed. Most of the children emerge inured, hardened, and, in the most favorable light, resilient, but the image of their abandonment lingered disturbingly throughout the series: there was the son of the nasty, snake-obsessed father whose mother left him; the children in the tent city orphaned by a mother caught for prostitution; the two girls left by their mother on an island. Interestingly, though Groff paints a variety of potential threats, the characters are rarely destroyed by those dangers: instead, they are more often affected by the unkind or complicated or thoughtless or selfish actions of their loved ones.
All-in, there is little redemption in Groff’s collection, which reads like a modern retelling of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” all gloom and doom as we consider our precariousness in the face of a nasty and dangerous world.
But my GOD can this woman write — each story an unimpeachable marvel of showing — not telling — us things through exquisite diction and perfecting detail. There were many passages that left me gobsmacked.
An absolute must read.
For those of you reading this in your own book clubs, a couple of reading questions for you:
Lauren Groff Florida Book Club Questions.
- Why do you think Groff chose to set so many of the stories in Florida? (There are a couple that take place outside the state, though they wink at Florida or bear some connection to the state — why is that?) And why title the book Florida? Why the emphasis on location? (E.g., she could have set all the stories in Florida but still titled it something else — why Florida?)
- Several of the stories include references to wealth, poverty, social class, and the derogatory slur “crackers.” In one story, we watch a professor slide into poverty; in another, a woman literally stumbles upon a homeless young lady asleep in an alley and attempts to have the police find out what is happening, describing her actions as informed by privileged white guilt. What do you make of these interactions? What do you think Groff is getting at?
- The dangers of the Florida landscape — hurricanes, panthers, snakes, sinkholes, blistering heat, bugs, plants — are a constant across the stories. What role does the landscape play? What is Groff suggesting about the relationship between man and nature?
- Some of the stories do not name their characters — instead, the protagonist is “the girl” or “the mother” or a character is “the older boy” or “the younger boy.” Why?
- Which story troubled you the most? Why?
- Groff makes a number of references to climate change, to the EPA, to Aleppo, the news — how do these current-day, real-life situations impact your reading of the collection?
Magpie August Book Club Pick: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne DuMaurier.
I mentioned recently how much I love DuMaurier’s Rebecca, which incidentally feels like it would live comfortably in the succession of wildly popular female thrillers that have come out over the last few years (Gone Girl, The Couple Next Door, Girl on a Train, etc), and then recently read a glowing review of DuMaurier’s later book, My Cousin Rachel, published in 1951. I’ve heard it described as “Gothic,” as an interrogation of sex and gender, as a page-turning thriller you can’t put down. Sold. Let’s plan to read by August 15th for a rousing conversation in the comments.
Also — please share what else you’re reading so I can select wisely for our September pick!
+I recently started taking mini to swim lessons and realized that only my Solid + Striped Annemarie one-piece really cuts it in terms of appropriateness for the occasion. (Bikinis and some of the other frou frou styles I rock just feel out of place…) I found a couple of suitable additions: another S+S in a solid color (on sale!), this J. Crew in the vintage sky (pale blue), this white ruffled Marysia (bonus: mini can match!), and this striped Caroline Constas (not sure on the bottom coverage…too much? — but marked way down to $88!) Also, we had to buy swim caps (required by the pool) and I went for this throwback TYR style! That brand reminds me of summer camp as a child…
+Nars has come out with an Orgasm lip balm and it looks incredible. My bestie just gifted me this Dior Lip Glow, though, and I am solidly HOOKED. It imparts the perfect sheen and flush and it looks PERFECT with a summer tan. Super dewy!
+I’m dying over these baskets with scalloped liners. They would look darling stacked in a nursery!
+I saw my cousin in the Hamptons, and she had just bought a pair of these from the Goop Pop-Up Shop in the Hamptons. Now I desperately want a pair!
+Desperately in search of an excuse to buy this polka dot lovely.
P.S. I cherished your reactions to my thoughts on reading.
P.P.S. I’m a crier. Are you?
P.P.P.S. More book club goodness.