How To Cope During Times of Crisis
Leave the World Behind
By: Rumaan Alam
Touted as one of the most anticipated novels of Fall 2020, I had high expectations for this book. Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam is also on the shortlist to receive the National Book Award this year. And yet, having just finished it the other night, I have very mixed feelings about this book. You may remember Alam for his previous title, Rich and Pretty, which was published in 2016.
Leave the World Behind is the story of Clay and Amanda and their Brooklynite family who have embarked on their annual family vacation to the east end of Long Island. They are particularly excited this year because Amanda has found them a beautiful rental house with a great price tag on VRBO, even if it’s a bit more remote than previous years.
The novel opens up with Clay and Amanda driving out to the house with their two children, fifteen-year-old Archie, and twelve-year-old Rose. While in the car, we are given a lengthy description of Amanda, an advertising executive who likes to feel that she is a successful woman, in her career, as a mother, and as a wife. She is the type of woman that likes to pat herself on the back for all of her successes and her neat and orderly life. She is on top of the world.
Clay is an almost passive husband, who is just trying to get through the day. He is a college professor at City College, a contributor to the New York Times Book Review, and just wants to lay on a lounge chair all day and sneak his cigarettes. In fact, the beginning of the novel seems to be all about Clay looking for a reason to get out and smoke.
The family starts out their vacation in a very ordinary way; having a BBQ on the back patio, swimming in the pool, and going to the beach for the day. All things that we equate with a perfect vacation. All seems to be going along well until there is a knock on the door on the second night of their vacation.
The novel up until this point is just ordinary. Besides the usual descriptions of weather, swimming, and suntan lotion, we get full descriptions of Amanda’s need to feel important and a detailed description of her grocery list. Alam inventories her entire list down to the number of eggs she buys and her calculations in how long the eggs will last. This is a little too much for me as my entire reason for reading is to distract me from my own lists. I don’t need to know about someone else’s!
Being the city dwellers that they are, Amanda and Clay are terrified when the knock comes at the door. Who could be knocking on their door at night in a very remote part of Long Island? When they finally muster the courage to answer the door, they find a husband and wife on the doorstep. They are black, well dressed, and a little bit shell shocked. It seems that this couple, GH and Ruth Washington, own the house that Amanda and Clay have rented and have driven out because there has been an unexplained blackout in NYC. Because they also live on a high floor in their NYC apartment where it would be impossible to climb the stairs in the dark, they have nowhere to go but their second home. Even though Ruth and GH feel terrible inconveniencing their tenants, they ask if they might stay the night. And of course, they offer to refund the cost of the night back to Amanda and Clay.
Clay immediately responds positively; of course, they must stay after all it is their home, etc. But Amanda is reluctant. Clearly, this woman has watched way too many suspense thrillers. She is not so sure these people are who they say they are, even though they are educated, well-dressed, and seem to know their way around the house. For the record, I am with Amanda, except the difference is I would never have answered the door in the first place.
Over the next few days, as strange things continue to happen, and we the reader are completely dumbfounded, a relationship grows between these two couples.
What I am instantly reminded of is not only 9/11 but also the Blackout of 2003 in New York City. During times of uncertainty, you bond with people you may never have had anything in common with before. During the blackout, I found myself talking to random people at bars and with the help of a few cocktails, developing a mutual camaraderie over our shared experience. I think we could all relate to these two couples who are just trying to get through a scary time together.
What was hard about reading this book, is that it is labeled a literary thriller. So, with this in mind, I was almost scared to keep reading because I kept waiting for the ax to fall. The New Yorker called this novel “a disaster novel without the disaster.” I kept waiting and waiting and yet no explanation comes as to exactly what has happened. So, if you’re like me, and like to have a novel wrapped up like a neat and tidy present at the end, this may not be the book for you. In the end, you are left confused, questioning, and trying to make sense of exactly what is happening in the book. The characters remain in a state of never-ending suspense.
What is certainly clear at the end of this novel, is how completely unprepared we are for the unexpected. You can be the most organized and tidy person, like Amanda, but it all goes down the drain the minute uncertainty hits. For all of us who have lived through 9/11, blackouts, hurricanes, and most importantly, the pandemic of 2020, we know this to be true. We can try to be as prepared as possible with material things like toilet paper, Clorox wipes, and paper towels, but we will never be prepared for the mental anguish that uncertainty causes.
Leave the World Behind
By: Rumann Alam
Publication Date: October 6, 2020