Leave the World Behind: Lara Says It’s Not a Dystopian Novel

We intended to read Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel, Leave the World Behind, for February as part of Black History Month — but Jennifer didn’t finish it till February 27. Nonetheless, we want to bring it to your attention. Besides making it onto many “Best Of 2020” lists (including TIME Magazine’s (go here), it’ll be a Netflix film starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts in the near-ish future. What’s it about? Briefly, a family of four — your basic mom and dad (Amanda and Clay) with two kids (Archie and Rose) — goes on the much-lauded Airbnb vacation to run into weird trouble. They’re from New York City, and they’re vacationing in a remote and woodsy area of Long Island. They’re doing the family-thing: food, checking out the TV, seeing the deck (Jennifer’s 2020 summer vacations). On their first night, the owners of the Airbnb — an older black couple (GW and Ruth) show up. They, too, are from the City. There’s a mysterious citywide blackout, and they were out and didn’t want to head back to their Manhattan building in the madness, so they show up with a polite, Hello! Things then happen . . .

Jennifer:  I feel like I want to get this out there right away. I loved this book. It contained the combo of elements I really like: it’s a bit of a thriller (actually, it’s a total page-turner), it’s literary (beautiful writing), it has some profundity (mild but there), it’s got some things to say about race and the world. It’s not, as Lara has convinced me, dystopian — though the suspense rests on the idea that the End of the World may be at hand. And I love that stuff! We all know that I’m intrigued by zombie apocalypses and people trapped in shit. BUT, what is great about this novel is that it doesn’t ever lapse into the silly or the ghouls-that-are-around-the-corner.

And I do want to say that I’m an avid reader who loves other books MORE — but I’ve only had a few reading experiences in which I’m so sucked in that I can’t stop. These experiences are as follows:

  • Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  • Home by Marilynne Robinson
  • One of the books in the Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante (they all run-together for me)
  • Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

I couldn’t put it down. Your big impression?

Lara: I devoured it. It’s like a twisted, modern retelling of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner but no one is getting married.

Jennifer: Oh, I like that!

Lara: Manners are guarded, tripped over, and awkward. It feels super voyeuristic. I felt like I was hidden the woods peeking through the trees and watching everything unfold.

Jennifer: I think I expected something different, frankly. I think expected that this would be a novel about racial tensions — that it might reveal how two nonracist New Yorkers, under pressure, reveal unconscious prejudice. It wasn’t that at all, in my opinion. Rather, I felt like the novel revealed that familial bonds are forged out in real ways that go beyond skin color. I’m hesitant to say too much, but I felt as if two of the most subtle but moving scenes were when the vacationing mom has a weird moment in which she considers asking the Black couple to join them in the master bed — not out of some weird sex thing, but because the world is crazy out there and she wants her family around her. And when the two men venture out to meet a neighbor, and they’re weirdly confronted with their own togetherness. Did you find this to be a book about race?

Lara: I absolutely did! Hence my initial statement about it being a twisty version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. When the black couple shows up at the house, without a car, kind of magically, Amanda doesn’t believe them when they say they own the Airbnb.

“The place was comfortable but sufficiently anonymous that she had not bothered to try to picture its owners, and now, seeing them, she knew that if she had bothered to picture them, her picture would haven been incorrect. This didn’t seem to her like the sort of house black people lived. But what did she mean by that? ‘This is — your house?’”

She also seems pretty preoccupied with how successful they appear to be. Did you believe them to be the owners?

Jennifer: I did. And I see your point on race. Though I’m the type of person who would be suspicious of anyone showing up.

This is an easy book to ruin for a reader. There were surprises. So, obviously, I liked it. I do have some reservations for my reader-friends. I thought Alam did what many, many contemporary writers do: he threw in some brief but graphic sexual depictions. They’re all within the bounds of, um, normalcy — but they would prevent me from having my teeny-boppers read this. I think I should warn some of my reader-friends. As a writer myself, I think Alam is a fine writer and he could’ve left those parts out, but I can also get past them. Lara, was there anything you did not like about this book?

Lara: I think there are much more graphic sexual interactions in books we have read than in this one. I don’t actually really remember them in this one. Maybe I have become desensitized. Or it’s just bad memory. Regardless, I think they felt within the realm of realism based on everything else that was happening in the book.

Jennifer: I highlighted a lot of passages when reading. I think there’s some great stuff. Here are just a few examples:

“You told yourself you’d be attuned to a holocaust unfolding a world away, but you weren’t. It was immaterial, thanks to distance. People weren’t that connected to one another. Terrible things happened constantly and never prevented you from going out for ice cream or celebrating birthdays or going to the movies or paying your taxes . . . “

I think this one might best illustrate some of the big themes of the book . . . that indifference of the world (I don’t fully agree, but okay!) and the fragility or even meaninglessness of our day-to-day relationships. This was written before Covid, but many of us might have experienced similar thoughts about our relationships. That forced into a tight-spot resulted in, well, hitting the “Refresh” button on out human interactions. Suddenly, one’s life boiled down to a group of “essentials.” I know that I had some personal revelations. Oddly, at the end of the day, I WAS STILL HANGING OUT WITH MY COLLEGE FRIENDS OF OVER THIRTY YEARS! But back to the book . . . the characters define family here, and I like how it goes.

Lara: The characters absolutely define family. I loved this all-to-true passage:

“You told yourself there was an end to the worry. You told yourself it was sleeping through the night, then weaning from the breast, then walking then shoelaces then reading then algebra then sex then college admissions then you would be liberated, but this was a lie. Worry was infinite. A parent’s only task was to protect his child.”

Jennifer: Some commentary on our human existence hit me. George thinks,

“ . . . if they weren’t human, in this moment, then they were nothing.”


“They were too busy, committed to their own overcommitment. Could they not spare a few hours for transcendence?”


“Rose turned the secret of the deer over and over as you would a hard candy on your tongue.”


Actually, I saw a lot of nice writing . . .

Lara: The writing is great. As I skimmed back over the book, there is a lot of sex. But it’s vacation and then this event that we can’t really talk about and so, yeah, it still seemed within the realm for me.

Jennifer: You’re cracking me up today! It’s vacation! Live a little! Time for sex!

Lara: If we can’t have sex on vacation, I mean. C’mon! I also thought he really captured the stress that comes with parenting. There’s a moment when Amanda and Clay’s kids are missing. Amanda goes looking for them.

“She walked and then leaped down the steps. She had just been looking out at the trees. She tried to find their bodies in all that green and brown. She should call for them, and it seemed like she did, but she did not. Her voice did not work, or couldn’t catch up to her body. She just moved. Slow, then fast, jog, then run, Amanda went down past the pool, shoving open the gate, and into the grass. Her children, their perfect faces, their flawless bodies, were there, somewhere.”

Alam is really good at building tension and keeping you interested. This was so different than I expected it to be and I was pleasantly surprised, if not a little anxious.

I will definitely read more by him. You know he has two other books, right? Rich and Pretty and That Kind of Mother.

Have you read either?

Jennifer: I haven’t, and I’ll read more by him too. A strong writer!

Next Up!

We’ll be back sooner than later to discuss Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour, a satirical debut getting a lot of buzz.

Happy reading, Snotties!


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Want to read more from Jennifer? Check her out at www.jenniferspiegel.com

Want to see what Lara is up to? Stay right here at www.onelitchick.com