Welcome back! First and foremost, thank you so much for contributing your thoughtful comments to the book’s discussion. It sounds like everyone agrees Isabelle is suffering from OCD or some form of an obsessive disorder. We also all seem to agree that before she went silent, there were a few episodes that weighed heavily on her—for example, when she found the dead and bloodied squirrel. As for Ruth and Wilson, everyone seems to be on Team Wilson but also recognizes that Ruth is just trying to keep her family together, despite Isabelle’s illness.
So, moving on: We start Chapter 3 with Isabelle at a new doctor’s office. Was anyone else surprised when Isabelle gave the doctor a smile? I have to say that Ruth’s frustration with Isabelle’s situation really comes out here, but I don’t dislike Ruth for it. In order to care for Isabelle, Ruth has had to give up her successful law practice and loved clients. She is the one who has to bring Isabelle to doctors’ appointments and spend every day in her painful silence, not Wilson. Wilson even tries to get out of taking Isabelle to lunch. The burden and caretaking is completely on Ruth’s shoulders, and that makes Ruth a far more sympathetic character to me.
I found the cooking scene to be typical for this book. Wilson is on the fringes, Ruth is front and center, and Isabelle is the overpowering, but silent, presence between them. It killed me that Isabelle didn’t allow herself the simple pleasure of going with Wilson to the apartment’s storage space to look for the Africa slides. Instead, she chose to punish herself and stick to her paralyzing routine. Winthrop writes, “She would like to go down to the cellar, but she cannot. It is Wednesday night. She must cook. She must cook.” (If we all had that dedication in the kitchen!) We also see Isabelle withholding pleasure when she won’t ask her father for a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich, instead of her usual chocolate chip pancakes. And then she refrains from drinking her hot cocoa. Isabelle thinks, “She does not deserve this, either.”
One of the most telling looks into Ruth and Wilson’s marriage (and possibly Isabelle’s silence) is actually a fight that takes place the previous winter, right before Isabelle stopped speaking. Alcohol is involved, as per usual with Wilson and Ruth, and Isabelle seems to think she caused the disagreement. From this scene and others, it becomes clear that the underlying tension in Ruth and Wilson’s marriage plays a role in Isabelle’s silence and obsessive behavior. Maybe Isabelle thought her parents’ unhappy marriage was her fault and things between them would get better if she stopped speaking?
Another point I want to make in this post is that Isabelle seems more distant than ever, like she is in a fog. At one point, Wilson calls her a “space cadet.” I am not sure if Winthrop is just now spending more time writing about Isabelle’s closed-off inner life or we actually are seeing Isabelle in a more detached manner. Her detachedness is most apparent when the exterminator comes to wipe out the ants—at this point, they seem to be her only friends. This scene seems to go on forever, and the reader feels every anguishing moment along with Isabelle. The picture of Ruth dragging Isabelle across the floor really resonated with me. On the outside, Isabelle is a “silent rock of a child,” but on the inside she is fiercely alive—although detached—and completely understands the damage she is causing her parents.
So to wrap it up: What did everyone think about Isabelle listening to her parents’ phone conversation, specifically Ruth’s harsh and bitter comment “I’m just glad I have no other children to fuck up.” Will it set back Isabelle’s progress even more? And do you think Isabelle is getting better or worse? I was particularly struck by Ruth’s thought at the very end of Chapter 5 when she realizes she has kept the family together for the sake of birthdays and holidays but neglected “the little things.” Do you think “the little things” are what makes a family happy? And do you think the little boy next door will bring Isabelle out of her hard shell—a smart move by Winthrop having the boy be deaf, don’t you think?
I will post again early next week on pages 116 through 173, which will bring us to the end of Part I. Keep the comments coming!