Floridaby Published 05 Jun 2018
Storms, snakes, sinkholes, and secrets: In Lauren Groff’s Florida, the hot sun shines, but a wild darkness lurks.
The New York Times-bestselling author of Fates and Furies returns, bringing the reader into a physical world that is at once domestic and wild—a place where the hazards of the natural world lie waiting to pounce, yet the greatest threats and mysteries are still of an emotional, psychological nature. A family retreat can be derailed by a prowling panther, or by a sexual secret. Among those navigating this place are a resourceful pair of abandoned sisters; a lonely boy, grown up; a restless, childless couple, a searching, homeless woman; and an unforgettable, recurring character—a steely and conflicted wife and mother.
The stories in this collection span characters, towns, decades, even centuries, but Florida—its landscape, climate, history, and state of mind—becomes its gravitational center: an energy, a mood, as much as a place of residence. Groff transports the reader, then jolts us alert with a crackle of wit, a wave of sadness, a flash of cruelty, as she writes about loneliness, rage, family, and the passage of time. With shocking accuracy and effect, she pinpoints the moments and decisions and connections behind human pleasure and pain, hope and despair, love and fury—the moments that make us alive. Startling, precise, and affecting, Florida is a magnificent achievement.
The truth might be moral, but it isn't always right.
Snakes, gators, swamps and storms form the backdrop of these exquisitely human stories.
I have to say I enjoyed Florida so much more than Fates and Furies. Groff's writing style is dense and wordy, metaphorical and poetic and - sometimes - exhausting. Reading her full-length novel was a chore, but for me at least, Groff seems born to write short stories. Small, hard-hitting snippets of lives that still make you feel emotionally-drained, but also thoughtful and satisfied.
The natural wonders and dangers of Florida play into almost all these stories. A snake devotee meets his end in the wilderness, at the hands of his life's passion. A stressed mother of two boys is injured in a literal cabin in the woods. Two abandoned children fight against starvation.
It's a book about people - often women and mothers, but not always - becoming unmoored and losing their way. The opening story is about a woman who takes to walking at night to calm her recently-acquired propensity for yelling. During these strolls, she observes her neighbors through their windows, unveiling pockets of their lives in punchy descriptions. It's amazing how much you can learn just by watching people.
For the most part, the stories seem to be narrating a series of events in intricate detail, observing nature and moments between people. But then, once in a while, Groff delivers a perfect line that captures a widespread thought or fear, tapping deep into the human psyche and offering insight.
It's extremely powerful.
CW: Child abuse/neglect; rape (non-graphic); general anxiety/depression.
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I loved Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. I thought the writing was absolutely brilliant and the story and characters were really original. So I was pretty excited to get my hands on Florida, which is Groff’s latest short story collection. Unfortunately, I can’t rave about the stories in the same way I raved about Fates and Furies. I recognize her talented writing, but there was a flat clever feel to her stories that made it hard for me to feel engaged. Most of the stories focused on women, often with young children, often in Florida, often with distant husbands, often dark, and all struggling with internal personal turmoil. Some stories were definitely better than others. There was one set during a wind storm in Florida, with a woman alone at home with her two boys that really got my attention. And she really captures the nuances of mothers’ love for young children. There’s a creepy story about two young girls left alone on an island. But, overall, these stories didn’t have me particularly excited. And I must also warn that it’s definitely not a book for who are afraid of snakes. Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for an opportunity to read an advance copy.
“When she was pregnant with Jude’s sister, she came into the bathroom to take a cool bath one August night and, without her glasses, missed the three‑foot albino alligator her husband had stored in the bathtub. The next morning, she was gone.”
Florida. Hot, sticky, treacherous, or as one character says “damp, dense tangle. An Eden of dangerous things.” I have spent time there, and I now live in a similar climate in Australia, so I can easily imagine myself in many of these stories. “Moving in the humidity was like forcing my way through wet silk.”
The Florida storms are horrific and frightening and wonderfully described. Standing next to the edge of a sinkhole in the rain must be terrifying, too. Climate change gets more than a passing mention in a few stories, because Florida, of course, is already being inundated by rising seas and hit by heavy storms.
One woman has exhausted her best friend’s patience with her constant worries about the future to the point that the friend has asked to take a break from her. She just wishes she could take a break from herself!
Most of the main characters are of a youngish or early middle-age group, although there is one in particular who worried about becoming what is often referred to a ‘woman of a certain age’. She had rented an apartment in Salvador for a two-week escape from caring for her elderly mother. Her guilt-ridden sisters paid for her holiday every year, so she goes to live it up.
“Helena was in that viscous pool of years in her late thirties when she could feel her beauty slowly departing from her. She had been lovely at one time, which slid into pretty, which slid into attractive, and now, if she didn’t do something major to halt the slide, she’d end up at handsomely middle‑aged, which was no place at all to be.”
I’d be happy with “handsomely middle-aged”, but then I’m not trying to party hearty, fitting in a year’s worth of escapades into a couple of weeks. Poor Helena.
There’s no question that Groff is a good writer. I think if I’d read any of these stories separately in The New Yorker Magazine or other publications where her writing appears, I’d have seriously enjoyed them. As it is, I found them repetitive and unrelentingly dismal.
From the woman who goes running to escape – her husband, her kids, the nightly chores of bath and bed (or maybe life itself) – to the woman who takes her two little boys to France to escape Florida, with its storms, snakes and deadly creatures in the dark. There is a lot of bemoaning their condition and a lot of drinking of wine. Bottle after bottle, drunk alone.
I felt as if all these women could be summed up by the one who took her little boys overseas, hoping to enjoy a voyage of self-discovery.
“She doesn’t belong in France, perhaps she never did; she was always simply her flawed and neurotic self, even in French. Of all places in the world, she belongs in Florida. How dispiriting, to learn this of herself.”
Dispirited is how I felt most of the time while reading this, and annoyed, because it is obvious to me that this is someone whose writing I’d enjoy, but not about women like this who all seem to be slightly different but equally miserable versions of each other. I waited a few days to write this, and I have to admit I find it hard to remember any of them separately. They’ve all melded together, single, married, rich or poor.
I will definitely look for Groff’s highly acclaimed first book, though.
Thanks to NetGalley and Random House / William Heinemann for the preview copy from which I’ve quoted.
Apparently, there is nothing more to write about in Florida besides miserable mothers, storms, and snakes. At its best, the short stories in Groff's new collection read like rough studies of Carson McCullers. There's Southern Gothic elements: anthropomorphized desperation, fleeting, mysterious characters, and the sense that life is essentially a giant screwball carnival. "Eyewall," "Salvador," and "Dogs Go Wolf" were about the only stories I'd deem successful.
At its worst, Florida is a hodgepodge of stream-of-consciousness and forced metaphors. And when I say forced, I mean, forced in a way that insults the senses. This was such a detrimental part of the book that I think it's worth exploring a bit more in-depth:
"I had lost so much weight by then that I carried myself delicately, as if I'd gone translucent."
Are you cellophane? A ghost? A bubble? Please advise.
"...the cheeks of my sleeping children, creamy as cheeses."
CREAMY. AS. CHEESES?!?!
"My rebelliousness at the time was like a sticky fog..."
And then my mind goes blank. I put down the book and rub my eyes. Can these sentences be real?
Watching people eat pizza is NOT like water dropping down an icicle. It never has been, and it never will be. A light bulb is not an egg and a woman is not a chicken, LAUREN.
Most of these garbled metaphors occur in the stories narrated by the only recurring character, a suburban housewife experiencing general ennui and who seems to not know where the fuck she is 90% of the time. In fact, most of the stories feature women who just don't know who, what, or where they are. Nevertheless, I persisted.
It really is a shame, because Groff clearly understands good writing. She obviously had something specific in mind for this book, and she probably could've achieved that if it wasn't for the crazy number of stories (thirteen in under 300 pages). That'd be a lot even if most of them had ended logically. As is, almost no dots were connected, no issues resolved, and very few questions answered. If there'd been half as many stories and twice as much character development/background, this could've been very impressive.
During a recent visit, Lauren Groff shared that when her husband proposed moving back to his native Florida, she, appalled, made him sign a contract that they would leave in 10 years years. That was more than 12 years ago. In the intervening years, she has come to love the state and all its weirdness, and even gave it the top acknowledgement for this, her excellent book of short stories. She knows she is a short story writer, having entered Amherst as an aspiring poet and having the intelligence to recognize that wasn't the path for her. She admits her forays into novels as an aberration (successful though those sidesteps may be), which explains why her stories are so rich, so immersive, and impossible to read in one gulp. They must be paced out. I've said in other reviews that when collections of short stories are good, they are hard work for a reader since it is like reading an entire shelf of well thought-out books, requiring more effort than say a 300 page novel.
What each story has in common here is someone in difficulty, either women or children, usually in danger from forces of nature rather than from another human being. That's what gives these stories their originality -- the unpredictability, impersonality and power behind forces which one cannot control. There is much reference to literature that Groff holds dear (when asked, she responded that she read material she loved multiple times, e.g., she had read the first volume of Proust's Remembrance of Time Past at least 8 times but hadn't progressed to the other volumes), and one story delves into the personality of Guy de Maupassant. A very impressive collection from a more than impressive writer.