The main character in Lauren Groff’s 2018 short story collection is not a person, but rather a state, described by her as “an Eden of dangerous things.” Gators, bugs, swamps, panthers, storms and criminals make up the physical hazards, but in Florida danger is just as likely to be ideological and societal.
Groff’s human characters include two sisters abandoned on an island, a young woman living in her car, a determined homeowner who hunkers down in a hurricane, and a conflicted mother of two who appears frequently throughout the book. Their lives are not connected, or even similar, except for the fact that all of their existences are intricately tied to the lush, humid, and tempestuous land of Florida.
Some have moved to Florida after childhoods up North, others were born and bred on the land. Either way, they have all experienced the physical hardships and sociological struggles of the American South, and have dealt with it in a variety of bizarre and ingenious ways.
Something about the Florida of Groff’s description feels ominous, malignant even, as though the whole state is shrouded in shadow and mist. She draws her reader’s attention away from the crystal clear water and white sand beaches of Miami and amusement parks of Orlando to focus instead on small neighborhoods on the cusp of poverty and campuses of rapidly expanding universities. Even when her characters leave Florida – in one case to visit Paris – they are plagued by the knowledge of having to return, but also drawn to the place they have come to know as home.
But if Groff gives the semblance that Florida is Hitchcockian, she offsets it by describing in glimmering detail the beauty and lushness of the state, and the resilience of the people living in it. Her characters withstand sexism, racism, violence and poverty, and they do so without fanfare or cries for attention. They refuse large sums of money in favour of protecting their property from developers and survive ordeals at the extremes of human ability. Florida has made them as strong as they are weary.
Groff’s turns of phrase are a large part of the delight of Florida. Neighbours windows become “domestic aquariums” under her keen observation, and relationships falter under the microscope of her writing. No detail is too small for her descriptions, no note too strange for her sentences. She captures the grotesque and the beautiful with equal eloquence, creating plots full of contradiction and mystery.
Florida is a love story to a state, and a deeply introspective study of what it means to think critically about the place you live. Groff’s writing is dreamy and ethereal, and will pull you in right from the opening pages. She writes from firsthand knowledge, as she herself lives in the state of Florida, and the book feels timely amidst the current political strife about immigration, crime and racism. She explores what it means to be American, and how the United States is seen by other countries around the world. Her depiction of America is searing, but at time also funny and entertaining.
The takeaway from this book? Whatever it is Lauren Groff has to say, I will absolutely be ready to listen. Florida is a beautiful book that’s incredibly original and beautifully written.