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‘Florida:’ Intriguing Characters, Lackluster Endings

3.5 Stars

Florida Cover
Courtesy of Penguin Publishing Group

Lauren Groff’s newest work, a collection of short stories titled “Florida,” is a beautiful yet melancholy meditation on the state of the world. Although fictional, these stories are socially conscious and even the shortest quip has a purpose. Each of Groff’s words feel deliberate, hardening the impact of her stories. Her characters are complex and her writing is lovely, but unfortunately the ending of some of her best stories fall flat: Groff seems to enjoy a vague, mystical ending that doesn’t always harmonize with its story.

Groff knows how to write, and write well. If a woman is heavyset, “Her shirts couldn’t hold in all her flesh.” On a character’s nightly walks, “the neighbors’ lives reveal themselves, the lit windows domestic aquariums.” Groff seems to see the world in intriguing ways, descriptions that make sense once written but feel impossible to think up oneself. It is this unique perspective that allows Groff to turn clichés into beautiful prose: “The sunset is so excessive it fills her with nostalgia.” Her ability to describe the world truthfully does justice to Florida, with its mysterious swamps, suburban areas, and humid climate.

Groff is aware of the America her stories are being read in. Without ever mentioning Trump or any specific legislative action of the past year, it is clear that Groff’s characters experience some anxiety about the state of the world. The main character of the first story, “Ghosts and Empties,” decides not to “barricade [herself] with [her] whiteness in a gated community,” and instead lives in an area that is predominantly black, annoyed with white parents and friends who grimace at the decision. In “Flower Hunters,” the main character speaks kindly of how hard her ex-best friend works: “Meg is the medical director of the abortion clinic in town, and all day she has to hold her patients’ stories and their bodies, as well as the tragic lack of imagination from the chanting protesters on the sidewalk.” “For the God of Love, for the Love of God” explores friendships between people with and without privilege. Characters worry about what the state of the environment will be in their grandchildren’s time. Groff writes of hurricanes and homelessness and motherhood in ways that challenge the reader to think again about these topics.

Perhaps Groff's greatest triumph in this collection is a complex character who is hard to shake long after “Florida” has been finished. An unnamed mother appears in many stories, her most resounding is “The Midnight Zone,” in which she is neither the angelic mother nor the abusive mother. She says, “While it’s true that my children were endlessly fascinating...being a mother never had been, and all that seemed assigned by default of gender I would not do because it felt insulting.” Yet her insistence to refrain from “motherly” duties leaves her husband to do almost all the parenting and all the household chores. On one hand, she can be lauded by feminists for refusing to confine herself to the stereotype women with children are so often forced into, but on the other hand she does so by barely parenting at all. She seems almost incapable of handling them on her own, making “scrambled eggs with a vengeful amount of butter and cheddar...thinking [she] would stupefy [her] children with calories” when she has to watch them without her husband. The mother’s actions and thoughts provoke questions about what it means to be a good mother, the complexity of stereotypes and their repercussions, and other questions of parental responsibility. These questions—which remain unanswered—linger throughout the short stories.

It is when Groff turns to the mystical that her stories suffer. “Eyewall” tells of a woman stuck in a terrible Florida hurricane, and the many people from her past—ex-boyfriends, family—that visit her. Some blow through the door, pushed by the powerful wind. Some ride by in cars only to be blown off the highway. The bizarre nature of the story hinders rather than helps and the strange ways these hallucinations appear distract from the essence of the story. “The Midnight Zone” is flecked with magical realism at its end, implying the fusion of the mother and a panther stalking the woods around their cabin. A few other stories end with a vague, metaphorical ending that lacks a real connection to the body of the work. These endings could be paired with countless other stories and read the same and are the place in which Groff overreaches.

Despite those few stories whose endings flounder in obscurity, Groff has written a collection with beautiful prose. These stories speak for themselves, and some are still yelling out long after “Florida” is put down.

—Staff writer Caroline E. Tew can be emailed at caroline.tew@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @caroline_tew.

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