Photo credit: Megan Brown.
“I still wouldn’t choose Florida as my home state, but I’m glad it chose me,” Lauren Groff replied when I asked why she had chosen to live on the peninsula full of snakes and rains, marshes and forest. Still, the author, whose works include the Obama favorite Fates and Furies and the acclaimed collection Delicate Edible Birds, named her new book after this unchosen habitat. Florida brings together eleven stories written over the course of the dozen years Groff lived in the state, but she never intended to pay homage. “The fact that these are all Florida stories comes out of the fact that I feel ambivalent or unsettled about the place where I live,” she said.
It seems almost contradictory that ambivalence, as a mode, would be the seed for such potent fiction, but one of Groff’s distinguishing skills is the ability to write within such contradictions. Her work is subversive, but quietly—it captures what’s mysterious about the inevitable, what’s bizarre about the inescapable. This collection has some familiar motifs from her novels—long marriages, frightful domesticity, foreignness, and the surreality of motherhood. And while most of the stories have appeared elsewhere and received big awards, brought together, these narratives of young families, divorced couples, and unconventional women vibrate with something new. These are stories about how human nature is an extension of the natural world, how our relationships are contoured by greater forces, and how time is delivered by nature—regardless of the checks and measurements we superimpose.
The rains in Florida are biblical, to say the least. The margins between earthly and celestial routinely dissolve. From the little girls abandoned alone on a tropical island in “Dogs Go Wolf” to the mother in “Flower Hunters” who reads the naturalist William Bartram while her children trick-or-treat in a storm, the characters in Groff’s stories experience the fluctuations of the outdoors on an elemental level. Nature is eroticized in a way that is not quite sexual yet wholly sensual. I asked the author for a word to describe this writing technique, one that transforms humans into phenomena, creatures—while at the same time placing, with precision, those characters in their environment. Her suggestion was wilding.
This call-and-response between domesticity and nature animates quotidian banalities, such as adultery in “For the Love of God, for the Love of God” and “Eyewall,” parenthood in “The Midnight Zone” and “Yport,” and aging in “Above and Below” and “Salvador.” Groff takes the structures we mistake as essential to life and makes them look absurd before nature’s implacability. The stories in Florida suggest that the relationship between humans and our planet—that home none of us chose—transcends the power struggle of dominance and submission.
I corresponded with Groff as she was bouncing between Iceland and the state that claims these stories. “I love Iceland—and yet I felt immediate relief on touching down here,” she wrote. “After twelve years, Florida has, despite everything, become home.”
Many of the women in this collection are Florida transplants, once northerners “dazzled by the flora and fauna.” Do you still feel that sense of wonder?
Most days, I have a moment or two of wonder. Yesterday, when I took the dog for a walk after dinner at sunset, there was a giant dead rat snake on the sidewalk that I marveled at, and then I came home in the dark through such a pungent smell of jasmine, which is in full bloom right now, and my head got a little swoony from the potency of the scent. Read More