First, we meet each story’s main character, who is troubled by a relentless, neurotic interiority: the little girl who has developed hyper-intense powers of observation to protect her sister from the untrustworthy adults around them; the woman who lives on her own, tortured by loneliness, and keeps chickens; the woman on vacation from her life as a caretaker to her elderly mother; the grad student drowning in debt. These characters are intensely thoughtful, and their thoughts travel in tight, claustrophobic cycles, winding in on themselves over and over again.
And then, into this cerebral, thoughtful landscape, the natural world comes seeping in. There is a hurricane, or a snake, or a dog, or a barren landscape without shelter. It’s been approaching all along, eroding boundaries before we quite realize what’s happening, and now it is here and inescapable.
In each story in Florida, the sentences describing this transition hold some of Groff’s most vivid imagery. Here’s the lonely chicken-keeper of “Eyewall,” struck by a storm: “My best laying hen was scraped from under the house and slid in a horrifying diagonal across the window. For a moment, we were eye to lizardy eye. I took a breath. The glass fogged, and when it cleared, my hen had blown away.” The poor hen; the hen-keeper who is struck breathless by the storm.
As each story goes on, the tension mounts unbearably. Reading them, you feel as though you are being slowly smothered, that the air around you is so thick and humid — so Floridian — that it is impossible to breathe. The lonely chicken-keeper hallucinates. The debt-ridden grad student, now homeless, sees her old life everywhere. The little girl, abandoned with her sister on a deserted island, grows weak with hunger.
And then, abruptly, there is a break. We are flung into the future, just for a moment, for half a sentence. The homeless former grad student, we are told, will remember the night we are watching “years later, after her mother’s funeral on a hill white with sleet.” The chicken-keeper will hear of one of her books “sunning itself on top of a car in Georgia.” The abandoned little girls will be told what they looked like when they emerged from the island.
The intensity of this moment — the moment that is the story, in which the natural world is all-encompassing and all-important — will pass and be relegated to the place of memory, and this realization is both astonishingly relieving and oddly disappointing. It’s not comfortable, exactly, to be trapped inside Groff’s lush, smothering Florida — but once you’re there, you don’t want to leave, ever.
This is an eerie and unsettling read, one in which the world is more porous than it appears and the land is always oozing and seeping into our rational, ordered lives. It’s hard to pick up and impossible to put down.