Book Review: Florida by Lauren Groff

It is terribly true, even if the truth does not comfort, that if you look at the moon for long enough night after night, as I have, you will see that the old cartoons are correct, that the moon is, in fact, laughing. But it is not laughing at us, we lonely humans, who are far too small and our lives far too fleeting for it to give us any notice at all.

Florida is a collection of short stories that is as heavy and eclectic as its namesake state. The eleven stories within explore the unique dangers of the natural Florida: the dank swamps, fearsome animals and relentless storms as well as the unique human dangers: poverty, violence and dissatisfaction. Woven throughout is one seemingly common narrator—a mother of young boys that readers can’t help but imagine as Groff herself, infusing autobiographical anecdotes from her life in Gainesville.

One of these stories is The Midnight Zone where the mother and her two sons are left at a remote cabin during a family camping trip when their husband and father is unexpectedly called away for a work emergency. It is made clear early on how the mother feels about her parenting abilities in relation to her husband’s yet unmatched success and she takes this opportunity to prove her worth. However, when a serious injury cripples her, she is forced to fully experience her perceived shortcomings and to rely on her two young sons, learning just how capable they are and how much she has taught them.

For a half breath, I would have vanished myself. I was everything we had fretted about, this passive Queen of Chaos with her bloody duct-tape crown. My husband filled the door. He is a man born to fill doors. I shut my eyes. When I opened them, he was enormous above me. In his face was a thing that made me go quiet inside, made a long slow sizzle creep up my arms from the fingertips, because the thing I read in his face was the worst, it was fear, and it was vast, it was elemental, like the wind itself, like the cold sun I would soon feel on the silk of my pelt.

Other stories include Dogs Go Wolf  where two young girls are abandoned in a remote cabin, slowly starving to death and experiencing hardship well beyond their years; At The Round Earth’s Imagined Corners in which a young boy in caught between his father’s dangerous obsession with fanged creatures, his mother’s abandonment and his own impressive and adept understanding of mathematics. We are taken outside of Florida to France in both For The God of Love, For The Love of God and Yport—the first a story of a family, a young boy and their au pairs and the second a return of the young mother and her two sons as she tackles a consuming writing project that teaches her more about herself than she intended to learn. Within each we are transported into the French atmosphere with the same successful immersion Groff creates within the stories set in Florida.

The cold air, the smell of cherries wafting up from the trees, the veal and endives cooking in the kitchen, the pool with its own moon, the stone house, the vines, the country full of velvet-eyed Frenchmen. Even the flicks of candlelight on those angry faces at the table was romantic. Everything was beautiful. Anything was possible The whole world had been split open like a peach. And those poor people, these poor fucking people. Were they too old to see it? All they had to do is reach out and pluck it and raise it to their lips, and they would taste it, too.

And lastly, in Above and Below we see the unfiltered decent into homelessness and poverty that one graduate student experiences which puts into stark contrast the wealth and ignorance of her peers and the greater population of Florida and by extension, America.

She looked in the window, hiding her face with her baseball cap. Two of her former friends sat at the table, both frowning into their laptops. How fat they looked, how pink. They were nursing their plain black coffees, and she remembered, with a surge of ugliness, how they all used to complain that they were too poor for lattes. How rich they had been. It was a kind of wealth you don’t know you have until you stand shivering outside in the morning, watching what you used to be.

Each story is compact in length but massive in scope, tackling social and personal issues with equal success. Touching on the struggles of motherhood in the day to day and childhood in the most extreme of circumstances as well as the often sensationalized parts of Florida’s environment and fauna, Florida is a mixture of stories that together form a haphazard portrayal of one state—reflecting both its uniqueness and its place within the greater struggles of America.

My eyes were closed and I was almost asleep when I said, Tell me. You think there are still good people in the world?

Oh yes, he said. Billions. It’s just that the bad ones make so much more noise.

Hope you’re right, I said, then fell asleep. But in the middle of the night, I woke a stood and checked all the windows and all the doors, I closed all the toilet lids, because, even though I was naked and the night was freezing in this world of ours you can never really know.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Riverhead Books

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