Arcadia by Emma Cline

The month of May is short story month and because of that, and because I recently turned in my final grades, I’ve been lately reading a lot of short stories. Namely, those stories included in the most recent Best American series, edited by Meg Wolitzer. There’s a lot to admire in the anthology — slices of life on display that show characters at their most urgent, desperate, and vulnerable moments.

One story I’d like to discuss is “Arcadia” by Emma Cline. It’s a story of orphaned siblings, Otto and Heddy, and Heddy’s boyfriend, Peter. All three live together in a rural area of orchard country. The orphans are not orphans in the traditional Orphan Annie sense, but rather, they are older, more mature, and running the farm/business like they know what they’re doing. Their father died four years ago and their mother had left for the east coast with a new boyfriend, so Otto had “pretty much raised” Heddy.

“Arcadia” is told from the perspective of Peter. The outsider, the boyfriend. We learn early on that Heddy is pregnant, presumably with Peter’s child, and when Peter moves in with them he immediately starts working on the farm. There are others who help too: hired hands who live in a series of trailers on the edge of the farm.

The entire situation — the characters’ isolation, the mystery of the parents, and Peter moving into Heddy’s childhood bedroom, “still cluttered with her porcelain dolls and crumbling prom corsages…”– is fascinating, but what takes center stage is the relationship between Heddy and Otto.

Peter notes, early on, “Otto kissed [Heddy] goodbye, making a lazy swat at her ass…” And on the next page, “[Otto and Heddy] carried on long, sober conversations… that trailed off whenever Peter came into the room.” And later still, “[Peter had] been surprised that neither Heddy nor Otto cared that much about nudity, Otto striding naked down the hall to the shower…”

All of which adds texture and mystery — who the hell are these people? — to this eerie, backwoodsy story featuring this trio of characters. If you haven’t already, check out the Best American Short Stories 2017. Along with Cline’s story, you’ll find several more that entice and tantalize readers with their precision, language, and compelling — and sometimes slightly perverse — situations.

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