Here Comes The Sun?
Book Review by Jude Joseph Lovell
Last May, author Lauren Groff claimed in the New York Times in May that “something invisible and pernicious seems to be preventing even good literary men from . . . reaching for books with women’s names on the spines.” To that I can only add that it’s their loss, especially when it comes to Groff’s own books.
Her new and already much lauded (it was a finalist for the National Book Award) short story collection, Florida, is a superbly written, dark, somewhat enchanted, and plenty vexed collection of short stories about women, mostly, set primarily in the eponymous Sunshine State. A reader’s response to these tales will depend a great deal on their appreciation of—or tolerance for—female rage, resentment, self-criticism, and instinct. What men are here are the types that don’t pay attention, dally with other lovers on the side, and abandon their families outright. Men “always [take] what they [are] offered,” one character broadly declares. But I should point out that in many of these stories, the women still thoroughly, even stubbornly, love them, and more than one of them skips town on their responsibilities as well.
You may also appreciate Florida if you lean politically to the left, find yourself frightened about climate change, and don’t believe much in God. After reading this collection, it is easy to understand why Groff is reportedly a favorite writer of former president Barack Obama, who famously counted her most recent novel, Fates and Furies, as his favorite book of 2015.
I admit that I have never been much of a fan of Florida. I don’t like heat, snakes, humidity, or excessive tourism—let alone hurricanes. There is something about the place that I find creepy. When I read Groff’s stories as they examine some of the more dangerous and mysterious aspects of it, I am enticed, because those are the things I’ve always felt aware of when I have visited.
Groff quickly demonstrates her power and talent. Her prose sparkles with artistry and grace, and this alone makes the book worth reading. In the haunting opener, “Ghosts and Empties,” an unnamed, anxious mother of two small boys tries to assure herself that “not everything is decaying faster than we can love it.” In “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” a fascinating title, she writes of how “the glossed edges of the ocean” are filled with “dolphins that slid up the coastline in shining arcs.” Yet she also reminds us of the state’s sinister underbelly: “Walk outside in Florida, a snake will be watching you.” And in what may be her most telling description, in the bracing “Flower Hunters,” Groff describes Florida as a “damp, dense tangle. An Eden of dangerous things.”
That these stories were sometimes tough for me to embrace can be explained by the complex, strained, sometimes cold characters. In “For the God of Love, For the Love of God,” one character describes her mother and father as “marching clenched and seething towards eternity.” A woman in “Flower Hunters” is “frightened that there aren’t many people on Earth she can stand.” Another (“Above and Below”) regards her neighbors as “people [who] decorated their yards with big rocks and believed they could talk to God.”
For a book about one of America’s brightest, most flocked-to places, Groff’s Florida doesn’t have a whole lot of sun in it, figuratively speaking. This is no turn-off for me, but I will say that going in I was hopeful that the stories would focus more on the raw mysteries of the state’s natural landscapes, and less on the conflicted souls of those who live and raise children in it. But it doesn’t seem fair to criticize a writer for being more interested in the flesh, bone, and spirit of her characters, and I don’t wish to.
Furthermore, it is pleasurable and intellectually stimulating to read and learn about how individuals who are not much like oneself think, act, and feel. That seems like one of the points of consuming stories and novels in the first place.
I may never understand what it is like to be a woman or a mother or a Floridian progressive. After reading Florida, I may well decide that I’m okay with that. But I can certainly appreciate that Lauren Groff, with her sharp and intelligent writing, has given me a glimpse of what it can be like to walk in other people’s shoes.
Photo credits: npr.org and booksandbooks.com
Jude Joseph Lovell, born in Chicago, Illinois and raised in New Jersey, holds a B.A. from Xavier University (Ohio) and an M.F.A. from The New School (New York City). He is the author of nine independently published fiction and nonfiction books, and his writing has appeared in numerous national magazines. His fifth novel, DeliverMe, will be published on November 1. More information is available at judejosephlovell.com.