The Quick Recap and Section-by-Section Summary for Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam are below. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.
For a non-spoiler version of the plot synopsis, see The Bibliofile's review of Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam.
In Leave the World Behind, Amanda and Clay drive out to a remote luxury Airbnb in Long Island for a vacation, along with their kids Archie, 15, and Rose, 13. They are a middle-to-upper-middle class family who live and Brooklyn. It's an idyllic and peaceful vacation until an older black couple shows up at night, identifying themselves as the house's owners, G.H. (or George) and Ruth. They explain that there's been a blackout.
Amanda is initially suspicious of them and is surprised that they could own a home such as this one. But it turns out George and Ruth are a wealthy and highly educated couple. Their main home is in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but they drove back to their vacation home to wait out the blackout. It's arranged that they will stay in the in-law unit in the basement until things get sorted. At the house, the wi-fi is out, along with the landline, TV and cell service. But they have power. Amanda also catches a news alert on her phone confirming a large-scale blackout across the east coast.
The next morning, Rose notices a herd of a few dozen deer outside (what she doesn't see is that there are actually thousands of them). Clay heads to town to assess the situation, but gets lost. He runs into a scared woman, but she only speaks Spanish and so he leaves her. Meanwhile, Rose and Archie go exploring in the woods. They find a shack and a house in a clearing, and Archie gets bitten by a tick. Then, a thunderous noise is heard, loud enough to crack the glass on some doors, which scares everyone. (Unknown to them, not too far away, the deer are scared and trampling everything in their wake.) Clay eventually finds his way home, but doesn't mention getting lost or the woman.
The adults try to prepare for an extended blackout, filling a tub with water in case the water stops running and checking on the food stores. But soon, Archie is sick with a fever. Amanda and Clay decide they need to leave to get him to a doctor the next morning. That night, a flock of wild flamingos appear on the lawn. Then, a few more loud noises sound out, breaking more glass and scaring them all. Amanda starts to think it would be better to stay here, where they have power, food and water, but in the morning a number of Archie's teeth have fallen out. They all also notice that Rose is missing.
Alarmed, Clay and George plan to drive immediately to a nearby hospital with Archie. Amanda will stay behind with Ruth to look for Rose. On the way, Clay finally admits to getting lost the day before, and he says that he did see a woman, but left her despite knowing she needed help.
George decides to make a stop to talk to Danny, his contractor, who he thinks can help them. However, Danny views George as merely someone he's done some work for in the past (as opposed to a friend) and greets them stiffly. He tells them what he knows, he says that there's a mass migration of deer going on which is a bad sign, and he advises that they go home and hunker down. George, Archie and Clay decide to just head back to the house.
Elsewhere, states of emergency have been declared, and the U.S. President is stowed away in a bunker. The world is falling apart. Levees have broken, resulting in floods. Some people worry about food. In the woods, Rose has made her way to the house she'd located the day before. The occupants are not home (they are stuck in San Diego and will never see their home again). She makes note of the useful things, grabs various supplies and heads back to inform the others of her findings.
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Chapters 1 – 3
Amanda and Clay are headed to a remote area of Long Island with their 15-year-old son, Archie, and their 13-year-old daughter Rose. Amanda, an account director, has recently gotten a promotion at work. One of her direct reports, Jocelyn, calls and Amanda reminds her that she’ll have spotty cell service while she’s away.
Rose asks if they will be vacationing anywhere near her friend, Hazel, but Amanda knows that anywhere Hazel’s family would take a holiday would be far too expensive for them. As the city fades away into a more bucolic setting and the GPS loses track of where they are, they arrive at the Airbnb they’ve booked for their getaway.
The house is upscale, tastefully decorated and full of thoughtful touches for its inhabitants. Clay sneaks off for a “secret” smoke soon after they arrive, and the kids quickly dive into the pool. Meanwhile, Amanda heads to the grocery store to stock up on victuals for their trip, splurging a little for a occasion.
Chapters 4 – 6
Clay is a tenured academic, and right now he is supposed to be reviewing a book for the New York Times. Clay thinks about the fierce love he has for his family, and he prepares burgers for dinner. After dinner, Amanda takes a relaxing shower and unwinds leisurely. Clay and Amanda have sex, and afterwards she chides him for still smoking when he wheezes.
The next day, the family goes to the beach, packing a lunch to take with them. After a pleasant afternoon in the sun, Amanda makes pasta while Clay runs to the store to pick up a few items. As the day cools, hinting at rain tomorrow, the kids soak in the hot tub. After ice cream and television, the children are sent to bed.
Then, there is a knock on the door.
Chapters 7 – 8
Amanda is instantly on alert, imagining the worst, especially given the late hour. After another knock and a man’s voice, they finally get the door. It turns out to be an older black couple, neatly dressed. They ask to come inside. The man introduces himself as G.H. or George Washington, and he appears to be in his sixties. The woman’s name is Ruth Washington. They explain that they are the owners of the house.
Amanda feels a bit irate about the intrusion, despite the couple’s apologies. Ruth and George had tried to call to warn them, but there’s no service. They’d been at the Philharmonic and headed back to their home in the city, but everything had gone dark, including any traffic lights. On her phone, Amanda confirms from a news headline that there’s a major blackout on the East Cost. Amanda notes that they still have electricity at this house, just as the lights flicker.
Chapters 9 – 10
Ruth says they’d like to stay at here, at their vacation house, until they figure things out. Amanda feels suspicious of these people, disliking the intrusion. George offers a 50% refund of what they’d paid for their entire stay, and he suggests that he and Ruth will stay in the in-law unit. Still, Amanda is not mollified by the offer and insists on checking out the Terms & Conditions for Airbnb, but the website isn’t working. She indignantly cites their lease agreement.
When George unlocks a cabinet and produces $1,000 in cash, Clay and Amanda agree to talk it over. Clay thinks it’s reasonable they’d want to stay and that the blackout is a legitimate emergency. Amanda wants them to leave. She’s suspicious that it’s not really their house and that there’s some type of scam going on. Even as Clay point out the flaws in her logic (the fact that George clearly has the keys and knows his way around), Amanda thinks that they just don’t seem like the type to own this type of house.
Amanda also insists that she thinks she’s seen George before. While she’s generally worse with black faces, she insists to herself that it’s not racist, comforting herself with the thought that there’s scientific evidence that people are generally better at recognizing faces within their own race. She also thinks about a movie (Six Degrees of Separation) where some people let in a black man to prove they aren’t racist, but he turns out to be a con man.
Finally, against Amanda’s protest, Clay insists on letting them stay, saying that it’s the right thing to do (“His wife felt it important, not to do the moral thing, necessarily, but to be the kind of person who would. Morality was vanity, in the end.”)
Chapters 11 – 13
Afterwards, the foursome have drinks together and make small talk. Clay asks where they live in the city and feels humbled when he finds out they live in the Upper East Side, an undoubtedly fancier address than their Brooklyn one. They also wonder about the cause of the widespread blackout, but the television is out and the wi-fi has stopped working. Meanwhile, Ruth and George have not eaten, so Clay and Amanda fix them some of their leftovers.
Ruth keeps wondering if something terrible has happened, like a bomb or missile, to knock out the electricity, but Clay reassures her that things will see less bleak in the morning. After some more speculation, they go to bed.
Ruth and George make their way to the basement in-law unit that was originally fixed up for Ruth’s mother, but she passed away before she could move in. Ruth and George have a daughter, Maya, who is the headmaster of a Montessori school. Maya is married to a woman named Clara, a professor of classics at Mount Holyoke. They have twin boys (Ruth and George’s grandchildren), Beckett and Otto. The boys are the product of the DNA of Maya and James, who is Clara’s brother. James works in Silicon Valley.
In the morning, Rose is petulant about the non-functioning television. Amanda gets a BREAKING news alert on her phone, but the headline is just gibberish. Amanda explains to the kids that the Washingtons are staying at the house too, blaming car trouble for their presence. Meanwhile, Rose looks into the surrounding woods and notices a deer, then a group of deer and then dozens. If she’d been on higher elevation, she would have seen thousands.
Chapters 14 – 16
When Ruth awakes, she tries the house’s landline and sees that it’s down as well. Amanda explains that she doesn’t want to worry the kids by telling them about the widespread blackout. Amanda and Ruth also chat a little. Ruth says that she is retired, but attended Barnard and she formerly worked in admissions at Dalton. Amanda says that Clay is a professor of media studies at City College. Ruth frets about not knowing how her daughter, Maya, is faring during the blackout.
Meanwhile, Rose wonders about the horde of deer she saw. The day is also strangely hot.
George (who formerly attended Harvard Business School) suggests that they go to see Danny, a contractor who had put in their landline to find out why the line is down. Danny lives nearby. But Clay volunteers to drive into town instead to find a newspaper and ask around to see what’s going on. Clay goes alone, but at some point he realizes that he is lost. There’s no other cars around. He starts backtracking, but doesn’t see the shack that indicates the turn-off for the road that leads to the house. He’s even more lost.
Chapters 17 – 19
Ruth sends the children off to blow up the pool floats, but Rose struggles with the task and her mother takes over. When Clay has been gone for about 20 minutes, and Amanda wonders what is taking so long. In the kitchen, Ruth and Amanda prepare lunch. As they chat, Ruth explains that George works in private equity.
Amanda realizes how marooned she feels with her phone disconnected. She doesn’t know what to think about the situation without her phone telling her. Ruth asks her about what ten books or records she’d take with her to be stuck on a desert island. Amanda uses the opportunity to fret about her lack of access to her Kindle books, instead of focusing on what she does have. (“What she didn’t say: We have the pool, these brie and chocolate sandwiches, and though we’re strangers to one another, sure, we have one another too.”)
As Amanda talks to Ruth and George about being parents and grandparents, Rose suggests to Archie that they go explore the woods. She’s still wondering about the deer she’d seen that morning. They find a small shed, and Archie teases Rose about how you can see into the window of Rose’s room from the shed.
Chapters 20 – 22
As Clay drives around, he finally spots a woman and tries to talk to her, but she speaks only Spanish. She is upset and afraid, saying something about “electric” “telephone” and “deer” but he doesn’t understand any of it. Finally, he apologizes and drives away.
As Rose and Archie continue their exploration into the forest, they see a clearing where there is a brick house with a lawn. (Meanwhile, around the world, various people have died due to the disruptions in the electrical grid. The author suggests that perhaps none of it really matters and that perhaps nature would be better off without us.) Rose wonderings if they should go check it out, but Archie says no and they head back the other way. Meanwhile, Archie has a tick bite on his leg, but doesn’t know it yet.
Back at the house, Amanda asks George how he got into his line of business, and he credits an early mentor of his, Stephen Johnson. Amanda says that some people are simply good at making money, but George disagrees and says that it’s a skill anyone can possess with the right knowledge. George said that Stephen had told him they were all machines, and you could choose what your programming was and what you wanted to do.
Then, there is a thunderous and jarring noise, loud enough to make clear that something momentous has happened. Amanda starts to worry about where her kids have gone off to.
Chapters 23 – 27
As they speculate on the cause of the noise, Archie and Rose return safely. (Elsewhere, the deer have been startled by the noise and are trampling everything in sight.) They contemplate if it’s thunder (but there’s no clouds) or if it was a plane (but planes don’t typically break the sound barrier). Ruth also notices the distinct lack of the sound of helicopters or planes in the past day.
Amanda also wonders if they should go look for Clay, but Clay does manage to find his way back. He’d heard the noise as well, and he is equally troubled by it. When Amanda finally sees him, she’s filled with relief, but also realizes with horror that she hadn’t expected him to come back. Clay reports seeing nothing, no cars and no people, omitting his encounter with the scared woman. He also neglects to mention that he’d gotten lost.
Archie grabs a shower, and he feels warm afterwards, but he attributes it to having just taken a shower. He falls asleep. Meanwhile, Ruth checks on the provisions of food in the house, just in case. Rose knows something is wrong and notices a crack in the glass door that was not there before, but occupies herself with baking a cake. Amanda instructs Clay to fill the bathtub with water, knowing that the water will not run if the power goes out. Amanda wonders if they should just head back home now, but Clay notes that it’s pouring outside. George and Ruth encourage them to stay here. Finally, George agrees to go into town with Clay in the morning, since he knows the way, to get more information so they can figure out what to do.
Eventually, Amanda goes to check on Archie, who is napping. But he’s not feeling well, and he throws up. Ruth, Amanda and Clay spring into action, finding a thermometer, changing the sheets, fetching him some water and getting Archie changed. George helps Rose with her cake. They determine that Archie has a fever of 102. Amanda is determined to take him to see a doctor in the morning.
Chapters 28 – 31
With Archie cleaned up and tucked back into bed, the adults have dinner and wine. They chat and George tells stories, followed by a dessert of Rose’s cake. Amanda notes that the electricity is still on. After dinner, it feels like the four of them have spent a lifetime together even though it has only been a day.
In private, Amanda feels hatred for the Washingtons, borne out of her fear. She wishes that she were safely away from here. Amanda and Clay have sex that night, and they make plans for what they want to do when they get home. Afterwards, Amanda gets into the hot tub, naked. George, who had the same idea, joins her in his swimsuit. Amanda notes the crack in the door and George says that there’s another crack that has appeared to, both of which seem to be from the noise earlier that day. George claims that he knew based on movements in the markets that something was coming, even before the power outage. As they chat, Clay walks out naked as well and joins them.
As they chat, they hear a splash and soon find a flamingo in the pool and more out on the lawn. They are surprised at how pink they really are. At first they think they’re from a zoo, but Amanda points out that zoos clip their wings and these flamingos were able to fly. So, they must be wild. Ruth joins them, freshly showered, and they fill her in on what had happened. George insists there are no wild flamingos in New York. Clay suggests that maybe they’re from the personal collection of one of their wealthy neighbors, maybe an eccentric billionaire.
Ruth is worried now, and she does not want George to leave. He insists that driving them down the road is safe, but Ruth is scared. Before, she had thought about how these people had become their friends, but now she thinks about how their safety isn’t truly her problem.
As they discuss, another loud noise occurs, causing more cracks in the glass around the house. They all scream, and the children run to their mother for comfort. One last noise, and finally silence. (Unknown to known, the sounds are coming from planes.) Bats fall from the sky.
Chapters 32 – 34
George and Ruth head back down to their unit, and Amanda, Clay and their kids huddle into one bed together. As they lay there, Amanda and Clay decide it’s prudent to stay here, where they have food, water and power.
The next morning, Amanda and Clay wake up hungover, and Amanda throws up. Archie wakes, but Clay notices that Rose is not there. Amanda checks on Archie whose fever seems to be gone. But then Archie notices a loose tooth. He taps at it and it falls out easily. As he opens his mouth, a mix of saliva and blood comes out. More teeth fall out and Amanda finally notices, freaking out. Clay asks the Washingtons, and they say there is a hospital about 20 minutes away. Archie insists that he feels fine, apart from the teeth, but Amanda is determined.
Clay finally admits that he got lost on the way to town when George explains the directions to the hospital. George offers to just show them where it is, but Ruth argues against him leaving. She also worries about being left by herself. When they suggest that Rose stay behind, it dawns on them that Rose still hasn’t been seen all morning.
Chapters 35 – 39
Amanda searches the house for Rose, but she’s nowhere to be found. Clay seems to think she’ll turn up on her own. Archie suspects that Rose has gone back into the woods, but says nothing. As Archie heads to the shed to see if Rose is there, his left knee gives out, and he falls over. He throws up, but only water and blood come out. Clay finds Archie doubled over, and they help him inside. They decide that Amanda will stay to wait or look for Rose while Clay and George take Archie to the hospital.
In the car, George drives and tells Clay to make note of the directions. Clay finally admits that he did see someone when he’d been out the first time, a woman who spoke Spanish. George wonders if it was Rosa, their maid. Clay admits that he left her there even though it was clear she needed help. George drives past a farm and thinks about how he never got to know the neighbors. He hadn’t known how they’d react to black neighbors who drove an $80,000 car, and they’d avoided the neighbors instead.
Meanwhile, Ruth and Amanda continue their search for Rose. They get sharp with each other as the search is fruitless. Amanda says she just wants to get away from there and from them, while Ruth points out that Amanda doesn’t even care that Ruth has no idea how her daughter Maya and her grandsons are doing. They both calm down, though, attributing their anger to frustration over not knowing what is happening with their respective kids. Ruth thinks about how “comfort and safety were just an illusion”, and how money didn’t change that they were all in the same situation.
George decides to make a stop at Danny, their contractor’s, house. He thinks Danny may be able to help shed some light on things, but Danny regards George stiffly. George takes Danny’s disinterested attitude toward their plight as a sign of his human weakness. It’s clear that while George had convinced himself that Danny considered him a friend, Danny simply considers him a man that he occasionally works for. Danny tells them what he knows (which is basically what they know, though he suggests it might be an act of war involving Russia), but makes clear that he is not someone they should be turning to for assistance. (Unbeknownst to Danny, his wife Karen will soon lose her teeth as well.) He also tells them about the mass migration of deer. The three of them (Clay, George and Archie) decide not to go to the hospital, but to head home instead.
In the meantime, Rose has been heading toward the house they’d previously located in the clearing through the woods. She’d known that something was very wrong that morning.
Elsewhere in the world, the President of the United States is stowed away in a bunker. State of emergency have been declared in various states, but there’s no way to tell people. Levees have broken, resulting in floods. Waters rise into people’s homes. Some people worry about food. In Maryland, a mother drowns her children. In other places, people commit suicide.
Rose knocks on the door, but finds the house empty. The family that lives there, the Thornes, are stuck at the airport in San Diego, but will never make it back to their home. The house has a pantry of canned goods and camping supplies. After she gathers some supplies like band-aids and batteries, Rose plans to head back to tell the others about her findings.