Book Review: Florida, Lauren Groff
Short Story Collection: Florida, Lauren Groff
Florida was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award and was named one of NPR’s “Books of the Year” for 2018. A collection of short stories is the official description, but this basic characterization fails to do it justice. It is a collection of gems, set (mostly) in a state with sun, sand, snakes, and stories that are moving and filling.
The only unifying theme of the book is the state of Florida. Not all of the stories are set in Florida, but all of them feature Floridians. The only recurring human character is a mother, nameless other than that description, “the mother.” She is married with two sons, and her life is both fulfilled and empty. She loves her husband but fears they have become simply clouds to one another, misty, amorphous, no longer in focus. She loves her children but fears she is not a good enough mother. She wants to finish the book she is writing on Guy de Maupassant, but finds when she takes her sons with her to France to work on the book that she actually abhors both the man and most of his writings. This mother spoke to me in her determination and desperation. She wants so much to be the wife and mother she thinks she should be. She wants to be the academic she’s dreamed of being. But life has conspired to move things sideways. She is determined to do her best, but is desperately aware that her best will never be what she wants it to be. She can only hope it is good enough, at least for her children, hopefully for herself and her husband. As of the end of the book, we can only hope with her.
The other recurring character is Florida itself. This is not the Florida of Disney and the travel brochures. This is a Florida where two little girls can be abandoned to starve on an island, rescued by chance after eating everything in their house and their neighbor’s house, wearing their mother’s dresses and lipstick. This is a Florida where a woman falls and injures herself with only two children to care for her for days, while a panther prowls outside their cabin. This is a Florida that a woman will not leave for more than a vacation, and where her husband will no longer stay. This is a Florida of survivors and victims, of homeless women and desperate men, of teens forced to raise themselves in empty homes and people trapped in empty lives. This is a Florida of hurricanes and heat. There are no talking cartoon mice in this Florida, though snakes and feral dogs and palmetto bugs make some very unwelcome appearances.
This can be a challenging book to read, but it is beautiful and heartfelt. If you want stories with happy endings, this is not your book. But neither is it unrelenting in its sadness. There are victors: an old man who survives everything life has thrown at him, (spoiler alert) the two girls who survive being abandoned, even the mother who appears in multiple stories. But these survivors do not survive without scars. They are damaged and wounded by their experiences, they are never completely whole again, they carry the marks on their bodies and in their hearts. But they do survive. And maybe that’s the theme of the book: if they can survive Florida, we can survive our own Floridas, whether they are in another state, another country, or just another state of mind.
Lauren Groff has given us a beautiful set of stories, gems which lay on a pendant of the Sunshine State. Like that perfect piece of jewelry, each gem shines individually. Together, though, it is splendid. Florida is a wonderful book that can be enjoyed piece by piece, story by story, but is perhaps most extraordinary when taken in as a whole.