Summary: Chapters 1-4
On a sunny summer day, middle-class couple Clay and Amanda, and their teenage children, Archie and Rose, drive toward a vacation destination. Clay notes the various smells of his family, including sweat and perfumed cosmetics from the kids, and shampoo from his wife. Amanda wonders whether it’s sexist that Clay always drives, then her thoughts are interrupted by a call from Jocelyn, a Korean-American employee who has a genuine Southern accent that Amanda finds disingenuous. Amanda reflects on her job, which seems silly, urgent, and ordinary, and on how Clay doesn’t really understand what it’s like to work in an office. Clay automatically checks the rearview mirror to watch Archie and Rose, who are occupied with their phones. Outside, the homes of the rich are hidden, but there’s almost a scent of wealth in the air. They stop at a drive-through for fast food and Amanda recalls the animal nature of her children nursing as infants. She rejects Rose’s request to visit a friend whose father is a director at Lazard, claiming that East Hampton is too far. After being stuck behind a trailer for a mile, they lose their GPS signal and must resort to handwritten directions in Amanda’s notebook. They are almost lost.
They arrive at the solid, white-painted brick house. Newly promoted, Amanda planned the vacation, attracted by the house’s Airbnb description: Step into our beautiful house and leave the world behind. She feels an urgent need to spend family time together before Archie and Rose grow too old. The kids head off to explore and Amanda, worried about Lyme disease, tells them not to go far. Although they can't afford a house near the ocean, they can almost hear it. The house is luxurious, clean, and tastefully decorated, and Amanda reflects that the owners are rich enough to be thoughtful. Clay volunteers to unpack the car so he can smoke a cigarette, his not-so-secret vice. Amanda wanders around noting the conveniences and comforts of the house. She watches her children jump into the pool, startling two turkeys in the woods beyond, and smiles.
Amanda drives to the local grocery store and splurges on food, choosing organic and recycled items. Everything she buys is mentioned in detail, including a twelve-dollar bottle of maple syrup and “politically virtuous” ice cream. She also buys a box of cake mix for a rainy day and salsa with cilantro, even though Archie dislikes cilantro. She fantasizes about kissing the young bagger, and thinks that vacations make everything seem possible, then she tips him five dollars for loading the car. She knows she’s spent too much money on too much food. In the car, she checks for cell phone service and is almost sexually excited as her work emails arrive. She stops to buy Clay a pack of cigarettes at the gas station. She plans an indulgent evening: hamburgers and hot dogs for dinner, followed by sex in a different bed. Afterward, they’ll have a cigarette in the pool and talk about finances, their children, or their real estate dreams., or maybe they won’t talk at all. She drives back to the house.
Clay secretly smokes a cigarette on the front lawn, telling himself that smoking used to be a patriotic act, like enslaving people or killing Cherokees. He thinks about the book review he is supposed to write and decides to do it that night. While he likes to be asked to write for the New York Times Book Review, he doesn’t actually want to do the work. He reflects that even though he’s a tenured professor and Amanda is a director, they can’t afford a house like this one. The key to success is having family money, he thinks. Musing on the luxury features of the house, he has an erection. He goes into the kitchen and watches his family enjoying the pool, feeling a parental urge to provide for and protect them. He prepares hamburgers, listening to baseball on the radio, even though he doesn’t like baseball. He feels a sense of familiarity as if he’s been preparing meals in that kitchen all his life. Outside, he gets ready to grill the burgers. Half-naked, he thinks he resembles a caveman or Iroquois stoking a fire to cook meat for his family, and smiles.
The first four chapters of Leave the World Behind explore the ambiguities of parenthood as experienced by a long-married couple with two teenage children. Clay and Amanda experience a range of parental feelings, including amused disgust at their children’s physicality, regret that their childishness is slipping away, and an ingrained, fierce protectiveness. Despite their focus on parenthood, Clay and Amanda have secrets that reveal their values and insecurities. In Chapter 3, Amanda fantasizes about kissing the teenage grocery store cashier, considering herself a “mother temptress.” She also feels an almost sexual excitement when she checks her email. Combining her sense of motherhood, her sexual desire, and her professional success indicates that she feels pulled in several different directions, but none cannot exist without the others. After all, her job provided the vacation, and her sexuality is integral in her role as a mother. Clay shares Amanda’s sense of being a provider, but in a much more visceral and direct way, as when he prepares food for the family. As he smokes in secret and appreciates nature, he feels like an animal. A moment later he contemplates the luxury of the house, which gives him an erection. To Clay, the house represents what he and Amanda cannot afford, which makes him think about the role of parents’ success in their children’s lives.
While these early chapters focus on the relationships within Clay and Amanda’s family unit, they are also sprinkled with clues indicating an impending disaster. Chapter 1 opens with a reference to the fact that the sun is shining, which is taken as a good sign. We aren’t sure whose opinion this is, but it is probably a collective family opinion. The next observation, that people turn any old thing into an omen, seems to carry a hidden, potentially sinister meaning. The narrator says that the sun is indifferent and reminds the reader that it causes cancer, providing an undercurrent of threat from the outside world. When the news mentions an intensifying hurricane season, Amanda turns the radio down, not wanting to hear predictions of bad weather. By the end of Chapter 1, they are close to being lost, and a sense of unease is subtly building. By Chapter 4, Clay is conscious of feeling safe, protected by a rampart-like hedge that keeps the world at bay. Again, the outside world is portrayed as a potentially dangerous force that needs to be closed out. The remote but well-built house appears to offer this family a safe haven, but we already suspect the safety is an illusion.
Clay and Amanda are preoccupied with their social and financial place in the world, making class an important subtext of these opening chapters. For example, they are hyper-aware that their generic gray car is a marker of their middle-class status. As they pass through various towns, the mansions of the actual rich remain hidden “in some other realm, like Narnia,” and we sense that Clay and Amanda yearn for a glimpse of true wealth. When Rose asks if she can visit a friend, Amanda squelches the plan, partly because she knows the friend’s father is a director at Lazard, signifying that this friendship is beyond Rose’s social range. Their vacation house impresses the adults with its solid construction and expensive fittings. Amanda muses that the owners are rich enough to be thoughtful—as if thoughtfulness itself is a luxury. When Amanda goes grocery shopping, she senses herself being wildly extravagant, indicating that she is usually frugal in her buying habits. In Chapter 4, Clay reflects that, despite their apparent professional success, they can only afford to rent the vacation house for a week, pretending they are wealthy. Contemplating the marble countertops and Miele washer, Clay has a full erection—a comical tribute to the allure of luxury. Staying in this house will give Clay and Amanda a chance to pantomime what it’s like to belong to a higher social class, an opportunity they plan to enjoy, even though it highlights a life they will never fully inhabit.
The first four chapters also hint at a later exploration of the theme of racism and racial tension. In Chapter 1, when Amanda talks on the phone to her coworker Jocelyn, she can’t help thinking that Jocelyn’s accent is disingenuous or wrong, given Jocelyn’s Korean parentage. Amanda knows this thought is racist, so she keeps it to herself, but she doesn’t try to banish it. In Chapter 4, Clay, a secret smoker, is aware that he should feel bad about his habit, but instead, he reminds himself that tobacco played a role in the United States’ founding, giving him a sense of centuries-old patriotism. He also connects this to enslaved workers and the genocide of Indigenous people, which he thinks used to be patriotic acts. We don’t follow this line of thought further and can’t judge his tone, leaving us to conclude that, as a white male, Clay isn’t as deeply disturbed by this association as he ought to be. In these opening chapters, Amanda and Clay both reveal racist thinking in their internal monologues, setting the scene for further exploration of the theme.