BOOK REVIEW – FLORIDA by Lauren Groff – October 2021

And so, because I’ve spent a lot of time there, I read Florida, a collection of lyrical narratives all having something to do with that strange and sunny state (Groff’s words), and was blown away.

You never know what’s coming next—a violent storm, terror, children’s antics—and you never know when things are coming to a close. The stories, if you can call them that—they seem more like jagged slabs of experience—just stop. They start suddenly, too, in the midst of things, as Horace recommended in his Art of Poetry. Excitement powers her style. You’re whooshed into the situation by it and just as unexpectedly set down. Groff makes words do things they’ve never done before, as in “the double kiss of a refrigerator door opening and closing.” It’s the book’s verbal style that impressed me most, at first. Its risk-taking creates a kind of euphoria that keeps the reader floating a few feet above the ground. It was only on a second reading that I realized how disturbing and scary her universe could be.

Two little girls, four and seven, are abandoned in a fishing camp on a tiny Florida island. Their mother, who has left with a man, has promised she’ll be back soon. Another couple arrives and stays in the other cabin. They, too, leave after a few days, promising that they’ll “send a lady.”   The girls eat cookies and canned beans. They sharpen sticks to kill fish. They dress up in their mother’s clothes, put on her make-up and dance around. A man comes to the island looking for them but they hide in the woods because their mother told them to if any men showed up. They watch The Little Mermaid over and over until the generator dies. A flash-forward tells us that they’ll be rescued eventually, but the horror is there.

Two couples vacation together in France. The older male of one couple—he’s very wealthy and dying of cancer—buys his young son some macaroons, believing they’re his favorite sweet; the son, who can’t stand macaroons, sticks them up the chimney. The older man and his wife hire the woman’s college friend, whom she hasn’t seen in years, to care for their son. Amanda is the female of the other couple. Her handsome partner, with whom she’s in love, cheats on her with her old college friend. The young son wants to run away. Shifting from one character to the next, the narrative viewpoint lets us see each person’s sense of him or herself without comment. The story, called “For the God of Love, for the Love of God,” lets us draw our own conclusions. These people inhabit a frightening, deceptive world full of misunderstanding and alienation. I wanted out, yet couldn’t put the book down. There’s a thrill in reading Groff, whatever her subject.

In one piece, mysteriously titled “Eyewall,” a woman lives through the savage destruction of a hurricane in an old house, gets drunk, has fantasies about her father giving her advice and an old boyfriend turning up; the narrative ends on a note of wonder. “Out where the steps had been, balanced beside the drop-off: one egg, whole and mute, holding all the light of dawn in its skin.”

This is typical Groff: a kaleidoscopic emotional landscape with no moral or metaphysical order to guarantee the outcome. Only experience, raw and intense.

My favorite piece features a Florida graduate student in literature whose fellowship hasn’t been renewed and whose boyfriend has left her. Unable to face these humiliations, she packs her stuff into a station wagon, takes off, and becomes a vagabond, buying food cheaply and parking near beaches until the police ask her to move. Things go downhill. Her car is vandalized (engine and front seats gone), she sleeps in a library closet, eats in soup kitchens, takes a job cleaning nightclubs in the wee hours, stays in a homeless encampment with a woman who supports her three children working at a fast-food place, and winds up in a community of drifters who manage to live together on practically no money. All this seems daunting and chaotic, but you sense the young woman regrets none of it. Her life of hardship makes the things that preoccupied her as a teaching assistant—e.g., the difference between “its” and “it’s”—seem ridiculous.

Being open to experience, all experience, and transmitting it with verve and awe, is Groff’s calling. Whatever she may have suffered in actual fact, as a writer she puts herself and her readers through some rough territory, rough and astonishing and glorious. She believes that whatever happens, you have to walk this lonesome valley by yourself. That, and only that, is worth doing. As a reader, I find her a matchless companion on the journey.

P.S. Lauren Groff has written three novels and two short story collections, the second of which is Florida, which won The Story Prize for 2018 and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her fourth novel, Matrix, is due out this month. She was born and raised in Cooperstown N.Y., the setting for her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton (2008) . ~