Tuesday, September 25, 2012

booknotes: our arcadia

In the weeks leading up to our wedding and subsequent honeymoon on Cape Cod (my first visit to that part of Massachusetts, after having lived in Boston for five years!) I re-read one of my all-time favorite novels, Robin Lippincott's Our Arcadia: (An American Watercolor) (Penguin, 2002).

I first encountered Our Arcadia on a road trip I took during the summer of 2002 through the Pacific Northwest. I picked up the novel at a tiny bookshop in Port Townsend, Washington, while staying at the hostel in Fort Worden State Park on the Olympic Peninsula (along with a summer institute for pipers; it was surreal to spend several days in a national park with the constant sound of bagpipes on the wind!). The novel begins in Boston -- a city I had yet to visit -- and takes place primarily on Cape Cod, near Truro. In a series of impressionistic chapters told in varying narrative voices, Our Arcadia tells the story of a group of bohemian friends who buy a house the name True House and live together communally from the mid-1920s through the Second World War.

It was very strange re-reading the novel from start to finish for the first time since moving to Boston. When I first encountered the characters, their landscape was a foreign one to me; now it is intimately familiar -- whether they are visiting the Museum of Fine Arts, walking up Newbury Street, or staying in the Parker House hotel.

The reason I re-read the novel as a prelude to getting married is that Our Arcadia was a work of fiction that spoke to my twenty-one-year-old self about what it means to live intentionally, and in community. The characters in Lippincott's novel are imperfect beings, and their lives are far from idyllic. There are failed relationships, parent-child tensions, accidents and illness and even a suicide. There is self-hatred alongside sexual ecstasy, artistic vision comingling with the necessity of financial survival. It was a novel that presented an interpersonal landscape where people of varying sexual desires and temperaments, race, class, and occupational pursuits, somehow found one another and pulled through life together. Who created a home.

I won't claim that my reading of Our Arcadia is anything but deeply personal. To others its prose likely feels pretentious, its characters typed and historically unsound. Still others might object to the short-hand use of the Cape as a retreat for bohemian artists, with little mention of the tensions between those who can afford to live there while making their living elsewhere and locals who live and die off more circumscribed economies. Yet for me, the book continues to suggest the truth of True House exists for those of us who work intentionally to foster it. And represents some approximation of the type of life I hope to build with my family and friends moving forward -- in spirit if not in material detail.

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