The Cary Memorial Library is without a doubt the most handsome building in Lexington, Massachusetts. Designed by Arts and Crafts architect Willard Dalrymple Brown, built of massive fieldstones in 1906, it is a librarian’s dream of a what a library ought to be, both inside and out. Surely this is why I’m so proud to see my name on the “Celebrate Lexington’s Authors” plaque, along with so many others. We are all members of a rich Lexington literary heritage, rivaled only—perhaps—by that of our neighbor Concord.
I love to hole up to read, write and repose in Cary’s stacks, observe earnest students studying in groups, and peruse the new books shelf, where I came across a novel I immediately decided I wanted to read: Leave the World Behind by an author I’d never heard of, Rumaan Alam. The front flap copy signified a story which sounded different from the run-of-the-mill stuff one usually encounters in popular fiction. I checked it out by connecting my phone to Cary’s state-of-the-art circulation system and toted the book home to my study for some eager page-turning.
And it was indeed different and totally exceeded my expectations. Alam is a gifted writer; this is his third and most recent novel. Clay, the lead male protagonist, pretends to sneak cigarettes, but he doesn’t fool his wife Amanda for even a moment. Smoking, Alam writes, “He should feel bad about this, but tobacco was the foundation of the nation.” Good one, Rumaan.
The story unfolds like a canoe floating downstream, carrying the reader along with a fair amount of both realism and anticipation: just what in the heck is happening to this little family that’s just trying to have a decent week’s summer vacation in upstate New York? Alam hints at and nudges various interpretations, while he subtly suggests that nothing about the world is predictable or routine. Was it ever, or was that just humankind’s attempt to overlay normality on the utter chaos that is the nature (sic) of all life on the planet? Is this, in fact, a world we can leave behind?
Each member of the family—Amanda, Clay, their children Rose and Archie—and the uninvited couple—must grapple with the unknown, unseen, yet very threatening events happening outside their realm of knowledge and perception. It isn’t a virus; it’s something else, something noisy, something that seems to be a big deal because it’s wiped out internet and phone service. Who knows what? Certainly not these six people who have sequestered in the remote, isolated woods in a McMansion of a house.
I found myself thinking about this book for days after finishing it. Whatever happened, it could happen today or tomorrow without any prelude—like 9/11. There would have been no anticipation, no foreboding. No nothing. Just a day when it happened, like the mighty floods that recently devastated New York and Pennsylvania. We live in a far more precarious world than we like to think. Could we leave it all behind in a moment?