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.
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam has been a pretty buzzy book this year, helped along by reports of it being soon to be adapted into a Netflix movie starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington.
It’s a tense story about a family on vacation and the arrival of some strangers. Leave the World Behind is probably best enjoyed without knowing too much about the plot developments, so I won’t give very much away, but what proceeds is a sharply-told and suspenseful story.
I’ve written up a much less detailed synopsis (above) than what’s printed on the back cover, and I would actually not recommend reading the book’s cover blurb since I’m of the opinion it gives too much away. This story is very scant on plot to begin with, focusing more on the thoughts and interactions between the characters.
I hemmed and hawed over this review, trying to decide what I really felt about the book; it’s one where opinions are likely to be split.
Leave the World Behind offers some interesting jump-off points for discussion and things to mull over. The book goes into the characters thoughts in a way that highlight their class differences, privilege and contrasting thought process. It juxtaposes the familiar domesticity of the characters’ actions against the jarring events around them, in a way that will feel familiar to everyone that is currently living through this pandemic.
It also offers an atmosphere of suspense that is well-done and manages to keep the tension held taut throughout the story. You can almost hear a Shepherd tone sounding wordlessly throughout the novel.
At the same time, I was left feeling mildly underwhelmed by Leave the World Behind. In general, the prose is often quite smart, but other times it felt like it was trying too hard to sound poignant without the substance to back it up.
For example, when the characters hear a loud noise, the book goes on and on for two pages about how momentous this noise is and waxing on about the nature of noise, which results in a lot of prattle like “Noise was an insufficient noun, or maybe noise was always impossible to describe in words. What was music but noise; could words get at Beethoven?” It’s a lot of time spent describing a sentiment that has the intellectual heft of “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
And as far as plot explanations go, there’s a sparseness to Leave the World Behind which some will find refreshing and others may find unsatisfying. Ultimately, the details of what is going on is not really the point of the book. That said, it did feel a little like a “cheat” to me that the book offers seemingly compelling details without putting in the effort of actually explaining anything.
Read it or Skip it?
You know how there’s always those arthouse films with like no soundtrack where critics all say that it’s like, “a powerhouse” or “tour de force” or “a masterclass in artistry”, but then half the audience is like “it was boring”? This book is kind of like that.
There is clearly an audience for it, and there’s definitely real substance here. I also think there’s a lot of good fodder for discussion, especially in the current state of the world, both in terms of living through a pandemic and in a time of rising income inequality. I also wasn’t bored, exactly, by it, since I think Alam does a great job of building and sustaining a suspenseful atmosphere in the book.
But I just didn’t think it was all that insightful. I’m not sure I personally got much out of the experience of reading it. I suspect I would have enjoyed it more as a group read. In fact, if you want to read it, I would highly recommend finding a friend to read it with, especially as a vehicle to talk about some of your thoughts about the pandemic, class disparities or, to a lesser extent, race. (Plus, I’ve written up some discussion questions below. Happy reading!)
How do you explain Amanda’s initial reaction upon meeting the Washingtons? Do you think her reaction to letting the Washingtons stay was reasonable? Do you think the Washingtons request to stay was reasonable?
Why do you think Alam names one of the main characters George Washington?
In what ways did wealth or lack thereof effect the interactions between the various characters? In what ways did race play a part in any interactions? Are there any parts that you think would have played out differently between differently situated people?
A few times, Ruth thinks to herself whether or not the wealth that she and her husband have saved up will help them in this extreme situation. To what extent do you think that money will have an impact on how things play out for them?
During one conversation, George and Amanda offer differing views about the type of people who become rich and how to become rich. What do you think has shaped their views and which one of them do you agree with?
What did you think about the detail in the book about the domestic activities of these people? Why do you think the author included these details?
What do you think about Clay’s reaction to the scared woman at the side of the street? Was it right or acceptable for him to leave her?
The author only offers small glimpses into what is truly going on in the world around them. At which points or upon the reveal of what information did you feel the greatest sense of foreboding?
What do you think about Ruth’s hesitance to let George leave the house? Do you think it was reasonable for her to try to insist that he not leave, even to help this other couple?
What do you think about Danny’s reaction to George’s request for help? Why do you think he reacted in such a way, and why do you think George had assumed Danny would help him?
How do you explain George’s reticence when it comes to getting to know his other neighbors (he says that he and Ruth have holed themselves up instead)?
Do you think the characters in the book are good people? What duty of conduct do you think they owe to each other? Do you think these people did the right thing? On the same note, in what ways are these two groups of strangers better off or worse off for being stuck together?
Throughout the book, there are a number of times the two couples think of themselves as friends or practically family, and there are other times they seem to consider themselves adversaries or strangers. Where do you think the truth really lies?
What do you think the actual cause of the blackout was? Do you think it matters in the context of the story?
What do you think will happen to these six people?
Recommended Published October 6, 2020
Page Count 256 pages
From the Publisher
In Leave the World Behind, two families, strangers to each other, are forced together on a long weekend gone terribly wrong.
Amanda and Clay head out to a remote corner of Long Island expecting a vacation: a quiet reprieve from life in New York City, quality time with their teenage son and daughter, and a taste of the good life in the luxurious home they’ve rented for the week. But a late-night knock on the door breaks the spell. Ruth and G. H. are an older couple—it’s their house, and they’ve arrived in a panic. They bring the news that a sudden blackout has swept the city. But in this rural area—with the TV and internet now down, and no cell phone service—it’s hard to know what to believe.
Should Amanda and Clay trust this couple—and vice versa? What happened back in New York? Is the vacation home, isolated from civilization, a truly safe place for their families? And are they safe from one other?