Lauren Groff made the long list for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, but unfortunately, her newest novel, Florida, did not make the cut. This interesting novel focuses on eleven people who live and work in and around Florida. The stories are only loosely connected, but each is interesting in its own way.
I was particularly intrigued by “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners.” Groff writes, “Jude was born in a Cracker-style house at the edge of a swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles. Few people lived in the center of Florida then. Air-conditioning was for the rich, and the rest compensated with high ceilings, sleeping porches, attic fans. Jude’s father was a herpetologist at the university, and if snakes hadn’t slipped their way into their hot house, his father would have filled it with them anyway. Coils of rattlers sat in formaldehyde on the windowsills. Writhing knots of reptiles lived in the coops out back, where his mother had once tried to raise chickens. At an early age, Jude learned to keep a calm heart when touching fanged things. He was barely walking when his mother came into the kitchen to find a coral snake chasing its red and yellow tale around his wrist (13). When I was young, I had an interest in snakes, but my interest waned when I could find none in a brown stone row house in Philadelphia.
In “Eyewall,” an attempt to raise chickens had some odd results. Groff writes, “It began with chickens. They were Rhode Island Reds and I’d raised them from chicks. Though I called until my voice gave out, they’d huddled in the darkness under the house, a dim mass faintly pulsing. Fine, you ungrateful turds! I’d said before abandoning them to the storm. I stood in the kitchen at the one window I left unboarded and watched the hurricane’s bruise spreading in the west. I felt the chickens’ rising through the floorboards to pass through me like prayers” (64). Groff has a talent for bringing into sharp relief, the two- and four-legged, as well as those with no legs at all.
“Flower Hunters” ends on a peculiar note. The unnamed narrator wants to call her friend Meg, but she remembers Meg wanted to “take a break” from their relationship. Lauren writes, “Two weeks ago, she called Meg at eleven at night because she’d read an article about the coral reef in the Gulf of Mexico being covered with a mysterious whiteish slime that was killing them, and she knew enough to know that when a reef collapses, so do dependent populations, and when they go, the ocean goes” (167)
Snakes appear off and on, and here is another, “Snake Stories.” She writes, “It is strange to me, and alien in this place, and ambivalent northerner, to see how my Florida sons takes snakes for granted. My husband, digging out a peach tree that had died from climate change, brought into the house a shovel full of poisonous baby coral snakes, brightly enameled and writhing. Cook! Said my little boys, but I woke from frantic sleep that night, slapping at my sheets, sure the light pressure on my body was twining of many snakes that had slipped from the shovel and searched until they found my warmth” (206).
Lauren Groff is a writer who can easily describe a character in her stories as well as calmly describing dangerous reptiles. Florida is a story for readers who abhor snakes, as well as those who are fascinated by the scaly creatures. 5 stars.