“Florida,” Lauren Groff’s fifth book — and second collection of short stories — is filled with the mesmerizing, decadent language one finds in all of her work.
Although a few of the stories follow Floridians abroad (in Brazil and in France), the titular state looms as a setting of lush beauty and swift menace: snakes and hurricanes, ghosts and sinkholes, panthers and St. Augustine grass.
“Florida in the summer is a slow hot drowning,” reports the narrator of “Yport.”
Climate change is a spectral source of fear in these pages; violent storms seem to move from one story to the next. Among the splendor of the imagery, Groff scatters frequent harbingers.
This collection opens with “Ghosts and Empties,” in which a mother takes a ritual walk through her Northern Florida neighborhood every evening while her husband gets their children ready for bed. “I do not want to be a woman who yells,” she explains. She lives in an “imperfectly safe” area, “frenzied with renovation,” and the “ghosts and empties” of the title seem, at first glance, to refer to the old housing stock. The subtext becomes quite visible when the narrator, a casual voyeur, observes “the mothers I know in glimpses, bent like shepherdess crooks, scanning the floor for tiny Legos or half-chewed grapes or the people they once were, slumped in the corners.” In this collection, the transformative aspect of motherhood is one of Groff’s concerns.
Occasionally, this makes some of the characters’ voices hard to distinguish. The writer in “Yport,” who takes her sons to France while she researches Guy de Maupassant, sounds very much like the mother in “Flower Hunters,” who “buries all her failures in reading.”
In “The Midnight Zone,” one of this collection’s finest pieces, the narrator tells us, “all that interested me was my books and my children.” Such “interest” comes with its own set of rules: “All that seemed assigned by default of gender I would not do because it felt insulting. I would not buy clothes, I would not make dinner, I would not keep schedules, I would not make playdates, never ever. Motherhood meant, for me, that I would take the boys on … adventures.” Adventure and escape, whether it be through books or through travel, are crucial to many of Groff’s characters.
Yet adventures are not without folly; in fact, in “The Midnight Zone” and in “Yport,” in “Salvador” and in “Dogs Go Wolf,” they are fraught with failure. Groff’s storytelling has such ferocious energy, and is so attuned to the natural world, that even a seemingly peaceful setting is only moments away from havoc.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing has appeared in Lenny Letter, Narrative, Crazyhorse, the Millions, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She held a 2014-2016 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
By: Lauren Groff.
Publisher: Riverhead, 275 pages, $27.