Bob Duffy reviews Lauren Groff’s Florida, a new collection of artful, brooding narratives hinging on themes of abandonment and isolation.

Lauren Groff, Florida (William Heinemann, 2018), 288 pp.

The stories in Lauren Groff’s new collection are true to the volume’s title. They all orbit a common geographic center, the U.S. state of Florida. In Groff’s Florida, however, this near-tropical locale, with its impinging abundance of wild spaces, is more than a physical setting. Landscape and climate here come to stand for the turbulent private worlds that Groff’s characters inhabit.

In all eleven stories, the action takes place in Florida or at one remove from the state. In these latter instances, the central figure is a Floridian on vacation from the place, a temporary refugee ultimately compelled, with due irony, to face the psychic – and often climatic – derangement that her stateside home embodies.

Groff’s Florida is not the glittering locus of beach and raucous nightlife as popularly conceived. It’s not the tediously festive Orlando; not the urban outposts of Latin culture; not the trim ubiquitous retirement communities. Her Florida, even in its outwardly orderly suburbs, is a sweltering flatland edging vast swampy expanses. In summer Groff’s Florida is a “hellmouth”, “a slow, hot drowning”, “an Eden of dangerous things”: “Walk outside in Florida, and a snake will be watching you”.

Biblical associations aside, in Groff’s present collection the physical world is a menacing liminal presence, a realm teeming with snakes, alligators, and the occasional panther, where horridly destructive storms race in from the horizon and sinkholes gape open on the instant. Even in the pieces that take place beyond Florida, stormy downpours seem to dog Groff’s protagonists in their attempts at temporary escape.

Throughout, Groff holds true to a strong narrative line. Her stories are distinctive for their reliance on eventful plots, with her characters’ routine lives disrupted – often catastrophically – by happenings in the physical world. Their reflections never cramp the narrative momentum of their stories. Rather, they pull things forward relentlessly, in tandem with external events, enriched by Groff’s admirable skill at building empathetic suspense in her readers. Conclusive resolutions – following a pattern anything but predictable in short fiction nowadays – are almost always on the way.

Most of the stories in Florida hinge on themes of abandonment and isolation. Groff’s protagonists are often educated, middle-class, fitness-enthusiast moms (only a single story in Florida features a male central figure). Most of them are seeming avatars of the American suburban “lifestyle”.

“Dogs Go Wolf” and “The Midnight Zone” feature characters who are literally marooned and forsaken. In the former story, two little girls, abandoned by their mother for reasons unclear, are left to fend for themselves on a remote island. In “The Midnight Zone”, a suburban mother, on vacation with two very young sons in “an old hunting camp shipwrecked in twenty miles of scrub”, is left alone with her boys. In a household accident she suffers a concussion that renders her virtually helpless. In “Above and Below” a doctoral student dumped by her boyfriend chooses homelessness and sets off on an aimless odyssey, a hauntingly compelling picaresque, around the state.

“Eyewall” also centers on a woman who chooses isolation over physical security, opting to ride out a hurricane alone. As her old house seems to crumble around her, her instability slowly resolves into focus, and “Eyewall” becomes a ghost story. In its best moments the story exemplifies Groff’s marvelously impressionistic eye: “My beautiful tomatoes had flattened and the metal cages minced away across the lawn, as if ghosts were wearing them as hoopskirts.”

“For the God of Love, for the Love of God” – in many respects the most distinctive of the stories – is a gem of trenchant social observation. The narrative unfolds around a suburban Florida mother visiting a college friend in France. This piece, like so many of the stories in Florida, hints at an autobiographical connection to the author.

This autobiographical strain is particularly evident in the brilliantly satisfying “Yport”, the culminating piece in Florida. Groff identifies her lead character only as “the mother” but the piece reads like memoir, and many of the thematic hallmarks of Groff’s Floridafictions are present here as well. The central figure is a Florida-based novelist off with her two sons on a summer’s intellectual pilgrimage in France. Her husband is stateside and largely unreachable as she faces a stark epiphany: the passionate assumptions of her youth have paled and been absorbed into the attitudes and responsibilities she has happily assumed as a mother.

The intimate ties of motherhood loom large in Florida. Groff’s central characters tend to be mothers themselves or daughters tethered to distant mothers. This is yet another in the welter of commonalities that typify this remarkable collection… and help us come to terms with the artistry of this wondrously talented author.

Bob Duffy is an American author, business consultant, and reviewer.

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