Lauren Groff knows dread. Personal disaster lurks in her fiction like a gator in the shallows: The result is usually gnarly, but always spectacular. Her last novel, the acclaimed (and President Obama-endorsed) Fates and Furies, was a vivid marital drama in which devastating surprises were rendered secondary to their excruciating buildup. This is Groff’s trademark approach to storytelling, and it’s even more prominent in Florida, her second story collection. Only now, the disasters on the horizon are more literal: hurricanes, snake bites, climate change.
Florida is Groff’s fifth book, and over the decade she’s been published, she’s rightly developed into one of our more notable authors of contemporary fiction. But she’s almost too dialed-in here. Florida centers on discontented women linked by the swampy peninsula where they all have history. The atmosphere of anguish is so overwhelming that it feels as if you might suffer from heatstroke or get carried off by a 100-mph storm wind. You’re helpless to the power — the sheer virtuosity — of Groff’s evocative prose.
The first entrant tracks a woman living in the state’s northern region (who reappears in other parts of the book), as she battles feelings of depression by roaming the suburban streets in the dark of the night, peeping into brightly lit “domestic aquariums.” Descriptions such as these, from the character’s alternately hyperaware and repressed state of mind to the uniform rows of houses she passes by, are nothing short of stunning, an astonishing showcase of what Groff can do with paragraphs, sentences, even single words. But in this first section and what follows, there’s a sneaking redundancy, too. This is an author who knows how to immerse her reader; but a depth of mood doesn’t always translate to a depth of narrative.
No story flails, but the collection’s grueling darkness proves limiting: Surprisingly, Florida seems like our best evidence yet of Groff’s unparalleled gifts, while simultaneously an indication of what can weigh down her work. Indeed, few three-dimensional characters emerge through torrents of rain and pain; most stories move through choppy waters, volatile and disorienting and never quite smooth. There’s one big exception: “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” a masterful tale that spans an entire lifetime; it’s an alternately bizarre, clever, and monumental study of family legacy, dashed with touches of humor and the surreal. While Florida’s landscape is never less than strikingly realized, its many inhabitants could use more of that depth. Even in Florida, there’s more to life than dread. B–