45 pages 1 hour read

Rumaan Alam

Leave the World Behind

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind (2020) is a work of apocalyptic fiction that examines the relationship between race and class during an unspecified disaster that cuts off all communication, forcing two families together. The book uses omniscient narration and interpersonal conflict to heighten the fear of disconnection in the Information Age, treating the apocalypse as an event that happens on a human scale. Published to great acclaim, it has been longlisted for the National Book Award.

Plot Summary

Leave the World Behind begins with the vacation of Clay, Amanda, and their teenage children Rose and Archie. The family is driving out from New York to a well-appointed house on Long Island that they have rented for the week, and they are eager to get away. While Clay drives, Amanda and the kids look at their phones, knowing that as they get to the house their connections will become spotty or not work at all.

The family spends the first night and day lounging by the pool and settling in, enjoying each other’s company. However, the feeling that someone’s watching her troubles Amanda, and on their second night, after the children are asleep, a knock at the door startles Amanda and Clay. G. H. and Ruth, the older Black couple who own the rental house, are at the door. G. H. and Ruth, clearly shaken, have driven in from the Bronx after witnessing a city-wide blackout and realizing they would not be able to make it back into the city.

Though G. H. and Ruth are telling the truth, Amanda doesn’t trust them and is uncomfortable with letting them stay in their own home. Clay disagrees, saying that it’s the right thing to do; the fact that the internet is out and the emergency broadcast is playing on the television bolsters his argument. The two couples eat together and have an uncomfortable night of conversation tinged with class comparison and unsettling speculation about what might be happening.  

The next morning, Rose sees a migration of deer in the backyard—a revelation she keeps from her family. Amanda has news alerts on her phone that point to a storm, but she can’t quite make out the last alert. The two families talk about what to do—G. H. wants to rely on his contractor and friend Danny, and Clay decides to drive into town to see what’s happened.

While Clay is gone, everyone else tries to have a normal vacation day, including drinking wine by the pool, though the tensions continue and Amanda becomes drunk. Meanwhile, Archie and Rose wander into the woods, where they find the neighbor’s house, and Clay becomes lost without his phone’s GPS. He finds a woman by the side of the road who does not speak English. She is in a panic, and he cannot understand her. Afraid, he leaves her there and drives on.

While G. H. and Amanda talk about G. H.’s career in high finance, they hear a horrible, all-encompassing sound that cracks the glass door, causing Amanda to run into the woods in a panic after her children. She emerges with her children, safe but dirty, then becomes angry with Ruth and G. H. for their attempts to remain calm. Clay returns home, shaken by the noise, and lies to everyone about the woman he met.

Everyone takes stock and calms down; the children nap, Ruth wants to clean and do laundry, and Clay and G. H. plan to go into town in the morning. Archie wakes up with a high fever, vomiting on the bed. While helping Amanda clean up after him, Ruth invites them to stay, and her displeasure at Amanda starts to soften. The adults have dinner and get drunk together, though they disagree about what to do next. Amanda and Clay retire to the bedroom and have sex; afterward, Amanda goes out to the hot tub nude, where she meets G. H. and joins him. Clay joins too, and they talk about what’s happening until they hear a flock of flamingos in the pool. Shaken, they head back inside, and the noise comes again.

The next morning, Archie feels less ill, but four of his teeth fall out, alarming everyone. Moreover, Rose is missing. While looking for her, Archie collapses and begins vomiting profusely, forcing everyone’s hand: G. H. and Clay will take Archie to the hospital while Ruth and Amanda search for Rose, with G. H. promising to return right away for the rest of them.


On the way to the hospital, G. H. thinks they should stop and see Danny, his contractor friend whom he believes is capable and prepared. When they arrive, Danny meets them on the porch and threatens them, telling them that he will share information with them but nothing else. He also advises them not to go to the hospital. Clay says he wants to go home, referring to G. H. and Ruth’s house, and they turn around.

Meanwhile, Ruth and Amanda search desperately for Rose, who has taken it upon herself to go to the house she saw in the woods to load up on supplies. As she breaks into the house and finds things to take back, the omniscient narrator reveals the collapse of society going on past the boundaries of what the characters know, and Rose is confident that she is preparing for a new way of life.