Floridaby Published 05 Jun 2018
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.
My full review, as well as my other thoughts on reading, can be found on my blog.
A collection of eleven short stories set mostly in the titular state, Florida examines the inner lives of young women and mothers afflicted by malaise, alcoholism, and, occasionally, despair. Abusive men, neglected children, unbearable storms, and the southern wilderness recur throughout the collection; the pieces gathered here feel like variations on the same set of themes. Groff writes lush sentences, full of palpable and unsettling images, and her stories move at a measured pace. Sometimes the stories felt scattered in focus, and occasionally I wished they would have ended on more definitive notes. Favorite stories included "Ghost and Empties," "Above and Below," and "Yport."
If these stories are anything to go by Lauren Groff is almost comprehensively disillusioned with men. Men in these stories are either absent, inept, in another world or downright threatening. The last story - and by far the least successful - goes the whole hog and deploys Guy de Mauspassant to paint a thoroughly irksome and depressing portrait of masculinity.
As a Brit one tends to forget how many deadly creatures there are in the US. The most scary threat we face from the natural world here is perhaps a bee sting. Groff's Florida is teeming with aligators, snakes, wild cats, bears. And then there's the murderous weather. All the stories in Florida are about lonely nameless women stranded close to the heart of darkness. There's a constant sense - the pollution and corruption everywhere, the wild weather - that Armageddon isn't far away. It's a gloomy vision. But the writing, as you'd expect, is fabulously alive with vitality and eloquence.
Were I an editor I would have omitted the last and longest story. For me it spoilt this otherwise riveting collection of thematically linked stories. It wasn't very well written and it lacked the subtlety of the other stories. Strange that the only story about a novelist proved to be the weakest. If there's one subject a novelist ought to be able to make compelling it's her own profession but oddly Groff's novelist was never convincing. And the anti-male propaganda was over the top. It's the stories that are actually set in Florida that are the best.
I wonder if there exists a collection of short stories by anyone (Chekhov?) where the quality is maintained throughout. And I'm not sure it's a good idea to place the worst story last. By the time you come to review you have the disappointing final stories uppermost in your mind. A better trick would be to insert the worst stories in the middle and end with a cracker. I probably would have given this five stars if the order had been changed. After all, you expect a little tension to disappear in the middle of the novel but if it ends well you forget.
I was left feeling women need love more than men do. Now I'm wondering if that's true.