December: Pages 1 Through 66

Hello, everyone:

Welcome back! I hope you all enjoyed the first two chapters of December. I definitely did. The characters are so complex that I was left with many questions. Let’s dig in.

Ruth, Wilson, and Isabelle are a prosperous New York City family. Wilson has an important job in finance, Ruth is a stay-at-home mom, and Isabelle attends (I use that word loosely) a private school. They have a weekend home in the country. They shop, dine out, and travel. On the surface, life seems grand, but below lies the truth. Isabelle, the apple of Ruth and Wilson’s eye, has decided to stop speaking, disrupting their relatively untroubled existence.

From the start of her novel, Winthrop addresses Isabelle’s silence and odd behavior. We know that she was once a happy, loquacious child, as portrayed through her dad’s reveries. But now she hasn’t spoken for the last nine months. Her silence began shortly after an episode in gym class; she began sobbing while jumping rope and said to her gym teacher, “There just didn’t seem to be a point.” While Ruth and Wilson initially chose to ignore this episode (Wilson called his daughter “a little nihilist”), this moment, along with others, now haunts them. They are paralyzed by the fact that there may have been other missed clues leading up to Isabelle’s silence.

At times, I feel sorry for Ruth and Wilson and angry with Isabelle. I want Isabelle to talk to them, to tell them that she loves them, to give them more than the ”sorry” she wrote on Wilson’s birthday cake. Though she knows her silence is painful for her parents—they have been drowning their sorrows with alcohol—she can’t speak up. While it isn’t completely clear why she stopped speaking in the first place, it sounds as if she thought it would be easier to not speak.

Isabelle’s character has so many layers. She is an incredibly smart and inquisitive girl, and while her mind opens up worlds to her (was anyone else bowled over by her highbrow reading list?), it also seems to shut her off from the world she inhabits. She has fears and worries that are much closer to an angst-ridden teenager than a privileged little girl. Her musings on why things are the way they are seem existential. Winthrop writes, “It’s as confusing to Isabelle as the idea of nothing, because by its very name, doesn¹t nothing mean something? The world seems full of these contradictions.” As a side note, I’d like to think I am not the only one who went “huh” after reading those two sentences.

Isabelle also seems to be developing a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. In a few instances, Winthrop shows Isabelle counting and sorting, and obsessing over numbers. Is it possible that this behavior, coupled with her inability to understand and take control of her surroundings, has led to her silence? Toward the end of Chapter 2, Isabelle says “she started to feel better once she resigned herself to silence” and that “it had given her something to live for, became an addiction.”

I don’t really know what to expect out of Isabelle in the following chapters, and that excites me. The big question looming in Ruth and Wilson’s mind right now is whether or not Isabelle will start speaking in time for her to attend classes in January. I would love to hear your thoughts on Isabelle, as well as how both Ruth and Wilson relate to her. Is Isabelle really ill or are we witnessing preadolescent obstinacy? Where do your sympathies lie—with Isabelle or her frustrated parents? How does the relationship between Ruth and Wilson play a role in their parenting? Could Isabelle’s illness destroy their marriage? I’m off to read Chapters 3 through 5 (pages 68 to115). I’m looking forward to reading and responding to your comments and will post again early next week.

—Amanda Armstrong