In The Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien

by Rachel Dean

Most readers are familiar with the writer Tim O’Brien because of The Things They Carried. The book, a staple of many many high school reading lists and a native to almost every trustworthy book shelf, has a reputation that points to O’Brien’s success as a writer.

But most people aren’t aware that O’Brien has a handful of other published work—books just as memorable as The Things They Carried. So, while looking for something reliably good to add to my summer reading list, I found myself on a search for something else from Tim O’Brien. And I found In The Lake of the Woods.

I’m not an avid reader of the mystery genre, but not for lack of liking. It’s more because I’m not the best at detangling the complex plots that often accompany these books. So, when I read the plot description for In the Lake of the Woods, I was a bit hesitant. But then I figured hell, it’s Tim O’Brien. The guy just doesn’t write a bad line. So even if the plot was a bit hazy, the words would be worth it. He didn’t disappoint.

The plot centers on the story of war-veteran John Wade and his missing wife, Kathy. Once Kathy has disappeared, all fingers point to Wade’s involvement. From there, the story follows the after-effects of Kathy’s disappearance within the quiet lakeside community from a fairly omniscient narrator. Through short, quoted interviews with people who knew the couple, the reader gathers insight into the complexities of the pair’s relationship. It’s no easy feat, considering we can’t get inside Wade or Kathy’s head. Every time some O’Brien provided some damning clue, or some slice of information that allowed me to make meaning of what had happened, he took it back or challenged it. Frustrating as it was, it made for an incredibly enticing read. I couldn’t put the book down; I wanted so badly to know whether John Wade had, intentionally or not, killed his wife.

The style and structure of the book seemed, at least to me, to be a purposeful decision by O’Brien. He wanted to acknowledge the futility of trying to understand the characters from our limited lens, especially because of their emotional and dense backgrounds. Every offered interview, every retelling of some moment of their relationship, is ultimately compromised by the fact that it’s not direct from the source. O’Brien writes, “There were times when John Wade wanted to open up Kathy’s belly and crawl inside and stay there forever. He wanted to swim through her blood and climb up and down her spine and drink from her ovaries and press his gums against the red muscle of her heart. He wanted to suture their lives together,” (p. 71). From passages like this, we are able to see that Wade and Kathy had no normal, stable, love— no absence of passion. And yet, we’re no less closer to calling him a murderer or an innocent.

It’s important to note that O’Brien is never black and white with his writing, which is clear in The Things They Carried. But the gray matter of his books is what makes them so incredibly unique. O’Brien doesn’t focus on the outcome of his story, or at least on its ability to be palatable. He inspires thought. His writing begs to be talked about long after the book has been re-shelved. That’s how I felt reading In the Lake of the Woods, just as I had with The Things They Carried. It’s nearly profound how little time O’Brien takes to deliver gut-wrenching lines. For example, he writes, “In the darkness, it did not matter that these things were expensive and impossible. It was a terrible time in their lives and they wanted desperately to be happy. They wanted happiness without knowing what it was, or where to look, which made them want it all the more,” (p. 2). From the start of the book, I knew I’d found something memorable.

Having said that, I wouldn’t recommend this book if you have a penchant for happy endings or for books that won’t, in effect, keep you up at night. In the Lake of the Woods leaves the reader with many questions, and ultimately, it was up to me to decide what I wanted to believe once I’d turned the last page. And despite the relative frustration of a book written that way, there’s a certain beauty to it, too. I felt like I was responsible for Wade and Kathy—I felt like I’d gotten to know them. There was interaction on the pages. It isn’t often that I get to read a book where I feel like the author is trusting me to make sense of his story, to take his gorgeous prose and point it in the direction of my choosing. That’s what O’Brien does, in every one of his books, and that’s why he’s considered one of the greats.

— Rachel Dean is a graduate student pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction writing at Adelphi University. In the spare time between school and work, you might find her surrounded by a pile of books, madly underlining and footnoting her current read. She was never an English major, but she certainly feels like one. More of her (very confessional) writing can be found at