Summary: Chapters 21-24

Chapter 21

Something has happened to Rose and Archie in the woods, though they don’t know what it is. Rose feels like she’s being watched, imagining herself in a video on her phone, not realizing that everybody thinks of themselves as the main character of a story. The omniscient narrator says that trees have already felt the vibration of distant bombs and that the disaster is suicide for humans. This might be a relief because nature will be better off without us. As the disaster affects the city, people are dying, trapped on the subway and in elevators, and ambulances can’t get to the people who need them. While Rose and Archie don’t know any of this is happening, it may not matter to them anyway because children only care about themselves. Although Ruth says there is nothing out in the woods, Rose and Archie find another house. Rose wants to explore it but Archie tells her not to. They walk home quietly, shivering, and Archie doesn’t notice a tick is biting his ankle. Their bodies know more than their minds do, but they’re not afraid. The bugs cling tightly to the trees because they know something is going to happen.

Chapter 22

Amanda realizes that Clay has been gone for forty-five minutes. Trying not to worry, she gets into the hot tub with G. H. Beginning to enjoy Amanda’s company, G. H. tells Amanda that making money is a learned skill. Amanda pretends to be interested but wonders where Rose and Archie are now that she can’t see them. As G. H. and Amanda talk about work, it’s like they are having two one-sided conversations. She describes her own job, then G. H. talks about his mentor, one of the first Black men at a Wall Street firm. Amanda says that working women need to stick together and mentions her own mentors, but in reality, she prefers to work with men because she understands their motivations. As Amanda listens for Clay’s car, a terrible noise breaks out. She tries to scream but can only gasp. G. H. leaps from the tub. Amanda runs to the woods to find her children. Instead of calling their names, she screams and is shocked by the sound. 

Chapter 23

G. H. tries to explain away the noise as thunder, but there are no clouds. When Amanda and the children come out of the woods, G. H. feels genuine fatherly relief and Ruth decides to help these strangers because she cannot hold her own grandchildren. She sends Amanda off to clean Rose’s minor wounds, and calls Archie “sweetie” and comforts him. When Amanda and Rose return, Amanda asks if the noise was a plane, while Ruth suggests a plane crash or a sonic boom. Archie says planes don’t usually break the sound barrier ,and Ruth notes there’s been no air traffic all day. The narrator tells us that planes were sent from Rome, New York, to intercept something approaching the East Coast. 

Wanting to get the children out of the room, Amanda sends Archie off to shower and Ruth tells Rose to go and lie down. Amanda thinks they are being attacked and should do something, while G. H. rejects that idea but looks uncertain. Amanda silently blames the Washingtons for knocking on the door and ruining everything. She keeps asking what they should do: fill bathtubs, tape windows, find neighbors? Ruth says they just need to wait. They talk about what might have happened and G. H. says they shouldn’t speculate. Amanda reflects that she doesn’t feel safe in this kitchen anymore. She looks at the marble countertop, thinking that although it no longer seems strong, she has a new appreciation of its beauty. 

Chapter 24

After hearing the noise, Clay realizes he doesn’t believe in masculine responsibility and wants to be protected instead of being the protector. He turns the car around and sees the sign for eggs marking the turnoff to the house, so drives back and cries with relief. He thinks he might die if the noise returns in the night and wonders if his father in Minneapolis knows what’s going on. Clay’s mother died when he was a teenager, so he knows that you still need to eat and get on with daily life when terrible things happen. Amanda is relieved to see him, and Ruth pushes the open bottle of wine at him, realizing she didn’t expect him to come back. 

Ashamed that he got lost, Clay lies about his time away, saying he just had a cigarette and came back when he heard the noise. When G. H. asks if he saw anyone, he says no. Worried that she is going to die there, Ruth talks about a piece of music from Swan Lake that she would want to be the last thing she hears before she dies. Now, she worries she won’t ever hear it again, but G. H. tries to reassure everyone and be rational. Out of nowhere, Amanda tells him he looks like Denzel Washington and asks if they are related. Then she tells Clay that G. H.’s name is George Washington and laughs, but none of the others say anything. 


Humans have lost their ability to interpret the natural world, instead relying on their devices for information. Nature itself is aware that something terrible has happened, but humans, the cause of the problem, are less able to understand the signs. Out in the woods, Archie and Rose sense that something has changed even though the adults have tried so hard to protect them from overhearing anything worrying. Rose, more perceptive than people realize, feels a sense of menace, but Archie doesn’t notice anything different in the air—at least, not consciously. While the change will be deadly for humans, the natural world will be able to adapt to the new conditions. The trees’ roots understand the significance of the vibration of distant bombs. Rose, being the youngest, is closer to nature than any of the others, but she is not as aware as the trees are of the disaster unfolding. In a useless attempt to understand what might be happening, Clay thinks about the signs preceding the disaster: the seas rising, hurricanes worsening, deadly diseases breaking out. The patterns in nature have been evident, but those whose job it is to predict the future, like G. H., haven’t been paying enough attention. 

In these chapters, isolation and a growing fear of the unknown create an unexpected bond between the two families despite their differences.. Left in the house with G. H. and Ruth, Amanda is obliged to turn to the two of them for company, support, and reassurance. When she worries about Clay taking too long on his errand, Ruth and G. H. reassure her that he’ll be back. When she loses sight of her children in the woods, G. H., feeling fatherly, tells her they are fine. She is beginning to rely on them in ways she would have found unthinkable even a day ago. G. H., in search of an audience, finds himself taking an unexpected liking to Amanda. Grateful for her company in the hot tub, G. H. dispenses advice about money in a way that affirms his superior wealth. 

The fact that it doesn’t seem strange to Amanda to be sitting in her swimsuit with a Black man shows how much her attitude has changed since he first knocked on the door. Back then, she thought G. H. might murder them in their beds. By the time the noise erupts above them, Amanda has come to see Ruth and G. H. as harmless and potentially useful, though she doesn’t yet view them as friends. She realizes that she needs the human connection G. H. and Ruth provide in this isolated setting. The sheer horror of the noise unites all of them in fear of a common enemy, the undefined disaster. By the time the children come out of the woods, Ruth is standing by to help with glasses of water and moral support, and G. H. feels real joy that the children are unharmed. A genuine bond is beginning to form among these strangers, formerly so suspicious of one another. 

Although these chapters show Amanda beginning to realize that she has things in common with G. H. and Ruth, she can’t help revealing her racism even while trying to make polite small talk. After the terrifying noise, when Clay returns and Amanda is still dizzy with relief, she blurts out what she thinks is a compliment to G. H., telling him he looks like Denzel Washington. G. H. knows what this comment implies: that he looks like the only Black actor Amanda can probably name. The implication is obvious: Black people all look alike to Amanda. While he’s still speechless, Amanda compounds the insult by telling Clay that G. H.’s full name is George Washington and then bursting into laughter. Again, the racist implication is hard to miss—she thinks it’s absurd that a Black man should be named after the first president of the United States. While Amanda is making progress in accepting Ruth and G. H. as fellow human beings, racism is so ingrained in her thinking that it finds its way into her conversation, even when she’s trying to be pleasant. 

The noise is a turning point for everybody, but especially for Clay. The magnitude of Clay’s fear when he hears it, alone and lost on the rural roads, causes an epiphany. He realizes that he doesn’t believe in the notion of masculine responsibility, after all. Until this point, he has enjoyed thinking of himself as his family’s protector, but in reality, he isn’t even able to find his way to town, let alone do anything heroic for the people waiting at the house. Once he gets home, though, he doesn’t admit to his new understanding that traditional gender roles are a fallacy. Instead, he covers up the fact that he got lost. He also fails to share the fact that he saw a woman who needed help but was too afraid to help her. In this way, he tries to hold onto his dignity but loses an opportunity to make an honest connection and draw comfort from his wife and the others. Ironically, Ruth appears to react to the noise with less horror than any of the others. Amanda gasps and curses, and G. H. leaps from the hot tub, but Ruth does nothing more dramatic than drop a spoon. 

After the noise, Ruth begins to take a more active role in helping Amanda manage and comfort Archie and Rose. Although this is partly to distract herself from the horror, it’s also because she, unlike Clay, feels a compulsion to do something concrete in the face of an emergency. In the aftermath of the noise, Archie conceals the fact that he wet his pants, already aware of his male obligation to seem tough. Rose reverts to childhood, allowing her mother to wash and dress her. Amanda, looking at the marble countertop, suddenly sees new beauty in the world around her, as if she senses it is all slipping away. She also becomes more vulnerable, leaning on Ruth and G. H. for comfort and reassurance. G. H. reacts to the noise by giving false comfort, saying that it could have been thunder. Unlike Clay, he is still steeped in the myth of masculine responsibility. The noise is a turning point in the novel, the culmination of all their nameless fears. In its aftermath, the consequences of the disaster soon be seen even in this isolated group.