Our July selection was chosen and the discussion led by a colleague who is more aware of new and diverse books than anyone I know. Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam was easy to read, well-reviewed, timely, multi-layered, and for many of us, frustrating. A family goes on vacation in Long Island and is joined by the owners when the power in New York City goes out, as well as all other communication – cell service, internet, and television. The reader is given insights the characters don’t have, but few answers.
Our first responder listened to the audiobook and skipped forward to find out what happened, only to realize that she couldn’t find the answer. The uncertainty drove us crazy, even if that was possibly the author’s point—especially now that we are so addicted to technology and immediate answers. Why didn’t George and Ruth go to find their daughter? Why did they still have electricity in the country? Unending whys. Could we even know what we would do in such a disaster? Which is scarier – knowing or not knowing?
One of us was particularly interested in the extraordinary movement of deer and felt that Rose was an explorer, a survivor. She thought the story had the feel of a Twilight Zone. A new member had seen how highly recommended this book was and isn’t sure why. She could see this as a film by M. Night Shyamalan and was particularly disturbed by the boy’s loss of his teeth. Another of us did not read the blurbs and had no idea what it was about. He was reading along and the kid lost his teeth with only 60 pages left! It was just sad.
Several people mentioned the grocery purchases that were a page long, going on…and on…and on. Was this to show their wealth, indulgence, the mundanity of their lives about to be upended? We still didn’t really understand or believe their behavior. Was the screaming Hispanic woman even real? Clay’s behavior was odd and selfish enough for him to have been hallucinating. Amanda’s casual nudity was aberrant. The author stated in an interview “We just want to be told what to do and when we aren’t, it is scary. We’ve always needed to know.”[i]
One of us was particularly moved thinking about how lucky we are in the United States. This story is terrifying because everyone in the story is out of control of their known world. Yet people all over the world have experienced similarly life-changing events. He specifically referenced the 26th Anniversary of the Srebrenica Massacre recently in the news.[ii] He came back to the helplessness of parents and terrible things that happen every day, including the number of people who die every year of excessive heat or influenza.
We also took a moment to think of books and movies similar to Leave the World Behind, and I brought up our previous selections of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Dog Stars by Peter Heller. Our new member recommends The End of October by Lawrence Wright. Our moderator mentioned Age of Miracles, a 2012 book by Karen Thomas Walker that also focuses on how humanity deals with the changes caused by the impending end of the world.
Our moderator ended the meeting by asking from the discussion questions: “If you had read the novel before 2020, do you think you would have had a different response to it? If so, in what way?” Most of us did not think that we would have read the book any differently, considering the reality of record-high lows, which we are experiencing now; the need to bring our desert tortoise into the house for survival; and the freaky dependence on technology that says, “I noticed you are awake, would you like me to turn off your alarm?” In addition, our newest member had been looking primarily for racial issues, something we didn’t discuss but that could give us plenty of fodder for further conversations. Please read the comments for email responses and add your own if you think of something!
- OTHER WORKS DISCUSSED:
- FILMS: Andromeda Strain (1971), Love and Monsters (2020), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978)
- Age of Miracles (2012) Karen Thomas Walker
- Dog Stars (2012) Peter Heller
- End of October (2020) Lawrence Wright
- Station Eleven (2014) Emily St. John Mandel
[ii] “The slaughter of more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks, most of them men and boys, by Bosnian Serb forces was commemorated in speeches, prayers and song, followed by the reburial of victims whose remains were found in mass graves and recently identified through DNA analysis.” Web accessed 7-14-2021. https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2021-07-11/bosnia-commemorates-26th-anniversary-of-srebrenica-massacre
From MM: As a whole, it was an easy, interesting read. I do think Alam spent too much time dwelling on things that happened throughout, which made for slow reading. He developed the characters pretty well. Of course everyone was on edge, especially after the loud noise first happened. I think the most sensible and rational adult was George. The other three couldn’t decide one minute from the next if they liked, disliked, were suspicious of, or distrustful of each other. Clay was a basket case and really needed to have his hand held. He also left that poor, hysterical woman on the side of the road, which demonstrated his lack of respect for other people even if he did feel some guilt in doing so. I thought it was strange that Archie wasn’t terrified about his teeth falling out. He was more curious about it instead. And why Amanda and Clay did NOT get him to a hospital after hemming and hawing about it for so long.
I had a feeling 2/3 way through the book, that Alam wasn’t going to tell us what was causing everything. I was disappointed. Was he sick of writing or did he not feel like putting in effort to come up with a plausible ending? I guess leaving it the way he did would make an interesting discussion on what people thought might happen.
I wish I could be with you as you discuss this book. I feel there will be a lot to say about the style of writing, the plot development, the characters, and the events which took place.
From MR: If I knew what I know now, I would have left the book behind! It was a struggle to keep reading because I found the characters so difficult to relate to but I was curious to see how it ended. That was a disappointment too. This was one of the least favorite books I’ve ever read. I can’t believe it’s been nominated for a Book of the Year award.
My first impression of Amanda & Clay was that they were doting parents trying to provide their kids with a memorable vacation experience. I changed my mind when G.H. and Ruth arrived. Instead of being thankful for their support, they were suspicious of them and downright rude. That drive to the market to find out what was going on was nerve racking. The incident with the woman on the roadside was strange and never resolved. The fact that Clay never made it to the store prolonged the confusion. I would have definitely ventured out to try to find out what was happening.
I didn’t think Archie and Rose were realistic either and only added to the confusion. The bickering over what to do with Archie when he was sick was upsetting. I would have been out the door with my son before anyone could stop me. Rose’s disappearance was another frustrating plot twist.
From BC: I read the entire book trying to decide whether to finish it and find out what happened OR not finish it because I didn’t care what happened. Turns out I read the whole book and don’t know what happened. Does this remind anyone of The Road?
From JT: I did read the book, I only have 1 word, BORING!
From CB (in Sorth Carolina!): I have a feeling that this will be a book that people either love or hate. I liked the book and enjoyed the author’s writing style of stacking up details. One example of this was when Amanda went to the store, and the author listed all the items she bought. At first, i thought this was wacky, but then I realized that this is exactly the way a person on vacation shops. Mostly practical things, with some splurge items thrown in, because Hey, we’re on vacation! Like a $12.00 faceted glass bottle of maple syrup. You would never buy that at home on your regular trip to the market, but vacation shopping is different. For me, this was part of setting the tone for the character’s vacation mindset. I was amazed and delighted by the author’s use of details. I think he is incredibly observant. There were some things I thought were very funny. These were mostly comments about the characters, like ” Rose had already posted multiple photographs of the trip, though they’d only just crossed the county line.” So typical of a 13 year old girl. I thought the characters were very real. I didn’t really like them, but I felt like the author got into their heads and nailed them. The racism was subtly carried out–not too blatant–but it made me cringe. I liked the way that the catastrophe was vague; I thought it added to the creepiness. You tend to feel fearful when you don’t know what’s going on. I think the book could almost be summed up in the epigraph, “Life goes on like birdsong, as soon as possible after a bomb.”
From Kristine: I found the book easy to read, even though I did find myself skimming a bit to get past details that didn’t interest me, such as the drippy messy fast food in the car and the shopping list. When the owners arrived, I found myself internally yelling at them to be more straightforward! I wouldn’t even answer the door late at night, and from experience I know my neighbors don’t either — they call the police. But that is another story.
When the mass of deer appeared, I started to pay closer attention but still found myself wanting to be in New York to see the disaster play out, or I wanted to experience George and Ruth’s sense of isolation and segregation in this wealthy enclave under normal circumstances. I really didn’t know what to think.
When the story ended, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, wondering what would I have done. Could I have made it to my children? Since we are given glimpses into the depth of the disaster, any action seemed worthless. The food we hoarded during the start of the Covid pandemic, how long would it really have lasted if it had been more like the plague in Station Eleven? What if the water saved in my tub is already poisoned?
I am actually glad that I didn’t care for the characters too much because it made the story less devastating. Since I read it, I have had some great discussions. As we have often said, I think I could get even more out of the book if I would re-read it, but there are so many books . . .
KK came in today to pick up next month’s book and she said she loved Leave the World Behind. She said that she is usually a slow reader, but she whizzed through it and actually re-read it! Thanks so much for sharing!