Summary: Chapters 17-20

Chapter 17

In the heat, Amanda and the Washingtons swim and sit beside the pool and make small talk, which Amanda improvising. Ruth tells the children to get more pool floats from the garage and Amanda blows one up for Rose. Ruth pities Rose as a plain, chubby girl and sees Archie as self-confident, probably because his mother dotes on him. Ruth worries that her grandsons will be spoiled in the same way by Maya and her wife. Rose and Archie occupy themselves with a made-up game, while Amanda worries about how long Clay has been gone. G. H. reassures her. Bored, Amanda suggests making lunch and Ruth goes in to help her, even though she doesn’t really want to. Amanda starts making brie and chocolate sandwiches, a family tradition, and Ruth prepares an ice bucket and folds napkins.

Amanda asks if Ruth gardens and Ruth says she is because G. H. wouldn’t do that “old-people stuff.” Ruth enjoys gardening, doing the crossword, and reading historical fiction because of who she is, not because she is old. Amanda guesses G. H. is in law or finance, and Ruth says he’s in private equity. Amanda thinks of Clay again and gets teary-eyed, which leads Ruth to feel sorry for her, even though she doesn’t want these people in her house. Maybe caring for others is resistance, she thinks. Amanda tells Ruth that her kids rely on their phones to tell them everything about the world, but she realizes she does the same, recognizing that they are all in digital withdrawal. Ruth talks about the ten books or records you would take to a desert island, but Amanda says she doesn’t have ten books because she reads everything on her Kindle.

Chapter 18

Amanda brings wine out to the pool and they discuss their children more. When someone mentions the month of September, Amanda thinks of the Earth, Wind and Fire song and wonders why the thought seems racist. She and Clay have few Black friends, which makes her feel uncertain so she begins to babble. G. H. worries about his daughter, Maya, thinking that as a father, he should protect her, but he gets over his fear quickly when he reflects that he and Ruth are the ones who need help. Amanda says it must be fun to be grandparents, thinking about her own parents, who don’t dote on their grandchildren and live in Santa Fe. Ruth thinks about how Maya seems to try to protect Ruth’s grandsons from Ruth and G. H.’s conservative, old-fashioned ideas.

Amanda has dropped her suspicions about the couple but wonders if this is a sign of dementia, which often starts with paranoid thoughts. She interrupts Ruth to blurt out that she just realized G. H.’s name is George Washington, then apologizes for being rude. Privately, she thinks this will make a good story one day. G. H. says her reaction is why he began using his initials early on in his career, and Ruth says it’s a fine name, not wanting to sound offended. Amanda says G. H. sounds like a captain of industry and someone she’d trust with her money. She wonders aloud if Clay will be back soon and looks at her wrist but isn’t wearing her watch.

Chapter 19

Archie and Rose, drawn together by boredom, go off to explore. Rose hopes to find another house where there might be a girl to hang out with, but instead they find a swing and a small shed. Rose breaks a spiderweb and feels bad for the spider, thinking of Charlotte’s Web. When Rose opens the shed, it’s empty, and Archie makes up a story about a man who sleeps there and would watch Rose’s through the bedroom window. Rose tells him to shut up and then confides that she saw a lot of deer, maybe a hundred, earlier. Archie rudely replies that he doesn’t know anything about deer. Feeling a little bored, Rose and Archie want something to happen without realizing that something terrible already is.

Chapter 20

Clay pulls over to smoke again and thinks the quiet could be either peaceful or menacing, and reflects that symbols don’t mean anything until you assign them meaning. Then he thinks of how carefully he and Amanda prepared Archie to ride the subway alone, and reasons that he can find his way back to the house if he is similarly methodical. Feeling an urge to see Rose and Archie, he thinks they should give up on their vacation and go home. After a few more wrong turns, he sees a woman on the road. He thinks her facial features look “indigenous” and her polo shirt and khakis are a sign she’s a domestic worker.

Clay lowers the window and smiles to show he’s not afraid. The woman speaks desperately in Spanish, which Clay thinks sounds silly but he understands a few words. He imagines she is a direct descendant of ancient people who had an advanced civilization. She begins to cry and touches the car , asking a question he can’t understand. He doesn’t ask her into the car because he won’t be able to explain that he is lost, so rolls up the window and drives away.


In these chapters, Ruth indicates that she is highly aware of sexism and age discrimination, even within families. She doesn’t want to be seen as an old woman, nor does she want to be underestimated because she’s female. She sees sexism playing out in the way Amanda spoils Archie, and feels sorry for chubby Rose. Ironically, she fears that her grandsons will grow into over-indulged, sexist young men as a result of being doted on by two mothers. Not wanting to play into gender roles, she questions her motivations for doing certain things, like cooking. Now that she’s a grandmother, Ruth is defensive about the fact that she’s attracted to activities that people associate with the elderly. This connects to her fear that Maya, who is a progressive lesbian, sees her as being old, and distrusts the conservative thinking of Ruth and G. H.’s generation. Ruth doesn’t want to be kept away from her grandsons because of her age or because she isn’t progressive enough in her thinking. While Ruth hates that some people would use her age and gender to define her, she feels the risks of this most acutely when she thinks of Maya because she wants to stay relevant in her lesbian daughter’s life.

The need to keep up appearances in front of the children, and also in front of one another, is a constant theme in these chapters. The contrast between the happy-seeming poolside scene in Chapter 17 and the undefined emergency weighing on all the adult characters’ minds reminds us that, in many situations, things are not what they seem to be. The important things are often happening out of sight. Amanda understands the irony of applying sunscreen and making small talk with strangers while her husband drives off to find out whether the world has ended. She is faking her way through a situation that makes her socially uncomfortable, all the while trying not to worry about the blackout and Clay’s absence. She’s also faking the notion that she’s still on vacation, and she brings out wine as a prop to support the illusion. Ruth, meanwhile, feels a sudden sense of tranquility, like the calm before a storm, and decides to go along with the artificial poolside scenario. While an unseen disaster unfolds, this little group keeps up the pretense that they’re at a social gathering, making small talk and eating sandwiches as if nothing unusual is happening.  

Because they’re from a less conservative generation, Archie and Rose don’t show any signs of their parents’ racism when faced with the unexpected arrival of Ruth and G. H. They accept the older couple without interest or anxiety, even managing to be polite enough that G. H. compliments Amanda on their manners. While the adults all agree that the children need to be protected from whatever horror is happening in the world, the children themselves hanker for a bit of excitement. They set off to explore, hoping the shed on the edge of the property will provide a diversion from the boredom of a day without screens. Archie invents a scary story to compensate for the dull reality of the empty shed, unaware that reality is about to get far scarier than any story he can make up. Something profound is already in motion and they’re part of it, whether they like it or not. Despite the well-meaning intentions of all the adults around them, they can’t be protected from the reality that is unfolding. Ignorance, in the end, can’t shelter them from the facts. Although the shared urge to shield the children is futile, it does allow the two couples to find common ground. 

As a professor of English, Clay is accustomed to looking for symbolism, but his reliance on literary devices gets in the way of his ability to understand reality. Once he gets lost, he tries to convince himself that the strange quiet of the rural roads isn’t really menacing, and that if he weren’t feeling lost and afraid, the silence would symbolize peace. Using this literary device, he tries to persuade himself that things can mean whatever you want them to mean. In fact, the silence around him has only one meaning: menace. Unlike Clay, Rose doesn’t use literary devices to interpret the world around her. She takes the unsettling quiet at face value and listens closely to figure out what it actually means. Compared to Clay’s obsession with symbolism, Rose’s way of thinking is less sophisticated, but it helps her better understand what is happening.

Clay’s “literary” tendencies are at work again when he encounters the Spanish-speaking woman on the roadside. Instead of trying to understand her, he uses cliche to turn her into a symbol and create a generations-long back story about her ancestors. His stereotypical thinking and obsession with literary elements result in an inability see her as an individual. Rather than trying to communicate with her, Clay launches into an internal monologue, using grand language to show off his understanding of history. But the concepts he relies on are one-dimensional and rooted in prejudice. Instead of helping him to understand her,, Clay’s made-up story puts more distance between them. It also allows him to see himself as superior to her. While he likes to think the lofty thoughts of a professor, Clay lacks the courage or decency to help a person in need. His reluctance to help her stems from a combination of bias against someone who speaks a language he doesn’t understand, and reluctance to deal with her panicked communication. Clay’s training as a professor of English has given him sophisticated ways of thinking, but it hasn’t prepared him to make moral decisions or real human connections.