Summary: Chapters 5-8

Chapter 5

The family eats messily, and then they lounge indoors, watching cartoons. Archie is comforted by the animation and feels too tired to go to the kitchen for another burger, although he’s still hungry. Amanda takes a shower and looks forward to sex with Clay—although she muses that she wouldn’t mind some novelty. She scrolls through her emails, happy to feel needed and missed, until Clay comes to bed and they have unusually daring sex. Clay is wheezing afterward and Amanda tells him to quit smoking, although she’d enjoy a cigarette herself at this moment. Briefly, she contemplates Clay’s death. He’s a good man, but she would love again. He agrees he should quit smoking but knows he won’t. When she opens the door to the backyard, for a moment, she feels as if she’s being watched. When Amanda and Clay go outside and get into the hot tub, she looks at his pale body and his steamed-over, but still loves him. 

Chapter 6

Clay makes Archie an omelet because there’s no cereal, then the family drives to the beach. On the way there, the GPS starts working again, guiding them over a long bridge. Walking from the parking lot, they stop at a memorial for the victims of Flight 800, but they don’t linger. While relaxing on the beach, Archie, Amanda, and Clay notice the attractive lifeguards. The family eats the picnic lunch they packed, and Archie persuades Clay to swim, even though it’s windy and cool. Tired, they stop at a Starbucks on their way back. At home, Clay offers to go to the store to get Archie cereal but he and Amanda know his real motivation is having a cigarette. They discuss how it might rain the next day, and Amanda isn’t sure if the weather is a promise or a threat.  

Back at the house, Amanda drinks wine and prepares dinner in the kitchen while watching Rose and Archie in the pool. She spots deer, a mother and two fawns, and thinks how fitting that is. Clay comes back, sheepish about buying too many groceries. After dinner, her head on Rose’s lap, Amanda falls asleep in front of the TV. She wakes and sends the children to bed, then watches more TV with Clay. Then, Amanda hears something outside and is alarmed, and seconds later, they hear a knock on the door. The house that felt so safe moments ago is now filled with a sense of danger.   

Chapter 7

Amanda tells Clay to get a bat. He picks up knickknack and then puts it back, knowing that he isn’t going to strike a stranger in the head. Amanda feels a flash of dread when a man’s voice politely says hello. Clay tells Amanda to get the phone, and she is ready to dial 911. Clay opens the door to a Black man in his sixties who lifts his hands as if to say Don’t shoot. Behind him is a woman, who is probably his wife. They apologize for bothering Clay and Amanda, and the Black man is aware of his need to sound sincere. He and his wife are aware they have a part to play in order not to seem frightening. The wind blows, suggesting an incoming storm, and the woman shivers in order to appear pitiable and elderly. The Black man greets Amanda by name and asks if they can come inside. 

Chapter 8

Amanda doesn’t recognize the Black man, and he introduces himself as G. H. The Black woman explains that her husband’s name is actually George, hoping to make him seem more approachable. G. H. explains that he and his wife own the house and reminds Amanda that they emailed about it. She remembers an email address with his initials, but isn’t sure what to believe because the house doesn’t seem to Amanda like a place Black people would own. Clay is disappointed that their arrival breaks the illusion of ownership, but he lets them in. The woman introduces herself as Ruth, conscious of her role to put people at ease. Awkwardly, Clay invites them to sit, while Amanda still feels afraid and goes to check on Archie and Rose and to eavesdrop from down the hall.

G.H. says they couldn’t call ahead because there was no signal, while Clay feels confused about his role as host or guest. While eavesdropping, Amanda sees a news alert on her phone about a major blackout on the East Coast. G.H. explains that they were driving back from the symphony when “something happened,” then Amanda rejoins the others and reports the blackout. G.H. and Ruth explain that they came to the house because they could not safely drive back to their home in the city, an apartment on the fourteenth floor. Skeptical, Amanda points out that the lights in the house are working, then, the pendants over the sink flicker four times. Everyone exhales when the light holds steady. 


In Chapters 5-8, Alam explores what makes a long marriage possible, scrutinizing the attitudes and compromises that allow two people to stay together into middle age. Part of staying married, he suggests, involves accepting that sex will never be novel again. In Chapter 5, Amanda feels sensual after her shower and looks forward to intimacy with Clay, but admits to herself that she wouldn’t have minded something new. While their encounter is more adventurous than usual, Amanda reverts almost immediately to her habitual caretaker role afterward, telling Clay he should give up smoking and dispassionately contemplating his death. While she still loves him, she is well aware of his physical imperfections when she sees him in the hot tub. The even longer marriage of G. H. and Ruth, also happy, first comes into focus when they appear at the front door and take on their established roles. They are like a double act, Ruth aware of her role as the one who smooths things over with people. A long marriage, we learn, requires both parties to give up certain freedoms, and also involves each spouse accepting their role in a division of labor.  

Dependence on technology, specifically on screens, affects all members of this vacationing family. In Chapter 5, Rose and Archie use cartoons to self-soothe after their strangely tiring encounter with real life, namely the beach. Later, Amanda scrolls through her emails as a kind of foreplay, enjoying how the electronic messages make her feel needed and even loved. At night, the TV takes the place of a hearth, allowing the family to be together without needing to interact. Amanda can even fall asleep in its glow without seeming antisocial. In Chapter 7, the shock of the knock at the door is intensified because technology has largely done away with the need to interact with strangers. Clay and Amanda are accustomed to living in a world where nothing happens without electronic forewarning, so the lack of phone signal, which precluded an announcement call, makes the late-night visit all the more frightening. Ironically, Amanda’s phone is able to receive a news alert confirming a blackout on the East Coast and corroborating G. H. and Ruth’s story. The ominous flickering of the lights at the end of Chapter 8 is a stark reminder of how utterly reliant they all are on that electricity and the technologies it powers.  

The racism hinted at in Clay and Amanda’s inner monologues becomes explicit when a Black couple arrives on their doorstep in Chapter 7. While Clay is taken aback at the sight of G. H., he is reassured by the man’s age and non-threatening appearance. Amanda, on the other hand, is primed to be suspicious of the strangers because she would never have pictured Black people living in the house. Ironically, the other details of their appearance probably coincide with her mental image of the home’s owners, but their race overrides all other indicators of status. G. H. and Ruth, meanwhile, are prepared to deal with the other couple’s racism in an almost rehearsed way, suggesting decades of practice. G. H. knows to hold up his hands in a way that conveys both surrender and a lack of weapons. Ruth knows to exaggerate her frailty and age by shivering in order to look harmless. She also knows that introducing her husband as “George” rather than “G. H.” will help to humanize him to people predisposed to see him only as “other.” While the visitors are able to convince Clay almost immediately, in subtle and calculated ways, that they are not a threat, even G. H.’s deliberate use of Amanda’s name is not enough to calm her irrational fear. While Clay is quickly able to suppress his unconscious bias, Amanda is less inclined to let go of the fear and suspicion spawned by her ingrained racism.  

Alam continues to weave in clues about an impending disaster throughout these chapters. In Chapter 5, when Amanda walks out and feels an eerie sense of being watched, we learn that the couple’s sense of safety in this house is nothing but an “adult illusion.” The next day, on their way to the beach, the family’s vacation spirits are dampened when they stop to look at a memorial to a past disaster—the crash of Flight 800. Rose is eager to walk away, but the memorial serves as another reminder of the illusory nature of safety. Amanda, glancing at the attractive young lifeguards, thinks it’s only fitting that “beautiful youth” would be the thing standing between you and “death at the hands of nature.” She is imagining being rescued from the ocean, but the metaphor has an ominous ring. That night, when an unexpected knock comes, Amanda is sure that someone has come to menace them. In Chapter 7, Amanda’s flash of fear when G. H. speaks through the door is either premonition or paranoia, and we sense that it is both. The windy weather, suggesting a storm, seems like a bad omen, and when Clay closes the door behind all of them, “leaving the world out there, where it belonged,” we already sense that danger will not be shut out that easily. When G. H. is unable to put into words what happened while he and Ruth were driving home, we understand that the official explanation of a blackout doesn’t begin to explain whatever disaster is looming.