In the Lake of the Woods

by Tim O'Brien

Paper Book, 1995

Status

Available

Publication

New York, N.Y. : Penguin Books, 1995.

Description

After John and Kathy realize that their marriage has been built on deception, Kathy mysteriously disappears in the Minnesota north woods.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Whisper1
This is a real page turner, creatively beautiful and exquisitely styled. It is an exceedingly unsettling and disturbing tale weaving history and mystery together.

John Wade, is a 41 year old Viet Nam veteran whose recently failed Minnesota senatorial bid shatters his facade of success. As a child John was an illusionist and as an adult politician he honed these skills.

Seeking solace from defeat, John and his wife Kathy vacation in the deep Minnesota woods where John's tether to reality snaps. A veteran of the My Lai massacre, John's flashbacks merge with the present day in a frightening nightmare quality.

Late one night while boiling a kettle of water for tea, John decides to boil and kill the houseplants. Mentally disorganized and rapidly deteriorating, he vaguely remembers the possibility of walking down the hall to his wife's bedroom with another pot of boiling water...then awakens the next day to find her gone.

O'Brien is masterful in his ability to use the dark woods as a metaphor regarding inner secrets and demons, blending illusion with reality as we walk the slippery path of insanity with John in his search for truth.
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LibraryThing member blakefraina
I don't read novels about war. If I am attracted to a book by an interesting cover design and I see the words, "Vietnam War," anywhere on the back cover, I immediately put it down. I found this book at a Goodwill and, despite its subject matter, was intrigued by the plethora of glowing reviews. I am thrilled that I ignored my initial instincts and would gladly read any book written by Tim O'Brien, no matter the topic.

From the opening lines, Mr. O'Brien creates an atmosphere of foreboding, of impending horror. His language is spare, yet remarkably poetic. The story of a popular politician who has lost a big election due to the revelation of his involvement in the My Lai massacre plays out slowly, like a mystery. His almost complete denial of his role in the horror illustrates the utter mutability of truth in memory. How we can choose to revise history - our own personal history or the history of a nation. Like the boyhood magician seeking his father's approval, he cultivates a talent for making things conveniently disappear. Even his disillusioned wife -who has either been murdered or, if one chooses to believe the alternative version of her final hours that is presented, has merely drifted away, despairing, into the ether.

This book is, at once, disturbing, heartfelt, beautifully written and deeply moving. Truly rates a full five stars.
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LibraryThing member ericap32
A gripping and suspenseful exploration of wildnerness, boundaries, and illusion -- literal and psychological.

There are many questions raised in this book, and really no conclusive answers. If you like your novels straightforward and pat, give this one a wide berth.

If you find yourself drawn to books that explore the motivations (sometimes murky) of characters, feature narrators that may or may not be reliable, and ask tough questions about the reality of our lives (to what extent does illusion actually shape reality? what happens to our illusions/reality when we enter into uncharted territory?), then you will really enjoy this novel.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Hunter17
A connection that I have made to the book so far is the election that John is in somewhat relates to the current events happening today with the 2016 election coming up for the U.S president. This connection helped me understand the process that john is going through in the story and why his recent war incidents are now coming up and hurting his chances. Then It also helps me understand how devastating it is when he eventually loses and how it effects him and his wife and how he eventually makes the decision to move to the cabin after the loss. One Literary term I noticed was there was a lot of cool diction used throughout the story. I think the diction was at first a part of johns character and it was used to show that he was smart and could use the words and then it showed more detail and added emphasis on what was happening in the story. The diction was used to paint a picture in my head so I could further understand what was happening and gave the book a whole other aspect that made is way more interesting then a regular book with out diction had.… (more)
LibraryThing member mikedraper
It's not that long ago that the events surrounding the massacre of My Lai reverberated in the minds of Americans. The men of Charlie Company were sent on a search and destroy mission which got out of hand and resulted in the death of approximately 300 unarmed civilians.

"In the Lake of the Woods," tells of John and Kathy Wade, who are together at that lake. They are trying to figure out what John will do after a landslide loss in a political campaign. He had been a rising star, politically, being lieutenant governor at age thirty-seven. From this lofty success, he doesn't know how he'll deal with the end of his dreams.

The author describes John and Kathy's early life at the U. Minnesota, the letters to Vietnam and his marriage after being discharged.

They were offered the cabin after John's staggering political loss. At first things seemed normal. However, John awakens one morning and Kathy has disappeared. Perhaps there was a blackout but John cannot remember what might have caused this.

What is interesting is that the author provides various scenarios. Did Kathy run off? Did John kill her and hide the body? Did she have an accident on the lake?

With Tim O'Brien's journalistic manner of writing, he describes John's actions while stationed in Vietnam as a member of Charlie Company. The story is filled with quoted statements from other participants in the massacre. This adds realism and makes us wonder what the psychological effect of these actions were on John.

John's character is well described as is the setting and historical happenings in Vietnam. Perhaps John is an extreme example of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome which not only caused the downfall of this politician on the rise but led to whatever happened between John and his wife.

This dark novel is an imaginative and stimulating portrayal of the aftermath of war and the disolution of a man's spirit and possibly, his life.
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LibraryThing member RoboJonelle
I absolutely loved this novel, from the first page to the last. O'Brien's writing style is very powerful, amazing and sticks with you for a long time after you've finished. The way the book was set up also kept me very intrigued. How he ties in the past with present and what he thinks might has happened to the narrator's wife is done so beautifully and very haunting. The characters are well developed and I found myself getting more attached to them as the book went on. The story was also well developed, and even though you're left with making your own assumptions on what happened to Kathy Wade, it didn't bother me at all that this wonderful novel didn't have a traditional ending.… (more)
LibraryThing member nickn54
This book is remarkable for several resons: its postmodern narrative; its ability to blend mystery with political and social commentary; and, its presentation of life's complexities, randomness, and uncertainty.

This is a great book.
LibraryThing member BenjaminHahn
The first 40 pages of this book almost had me put the book down. I couldn't stand the "evidence" chapters. They seemed so gimmicky and lazy. I kept reading however and for the most part enjoyed the rest of the story.
There are some truly well written passages, but I just couldn't get past the "footnotes as narrative" mechanism for telling this story. Perhaps it’s the history buff in me. Perhaps it’s my undergrad memorization of the Chicago Style Writing Manual. Whatever it is, using footnotes to indiscriminately describe fictional and nonfictional elements just irked me. From the get go, I knew that there was not going to be an official ending to this mystery. But by the time I got to the end, Tim O'Brien was inserting footnotes in the "evidence" chapters describing his personal feelings and takes on the characters as if they were real people. This really bothered me because these were fictional characters he created and he seemed to be trying to give us another point of view on them by implying that he really didn't know what they were up to. Post-modern some might say, but as far as story telling goes it was just confusing and it really didn't help me think about it in any new way. It just seemed like poor writing.
I will give him this: the character of John Wade was a messed up dude, even before the war. A very convincing creeper. I really couldn't figure out why Kathy was in love with him. He didn't really exhibit any healthy qualities. Perhaps Kathy just found all the stalking and lack of communication romantic? Anyway, the chapters that dealt with the war were the most fascinating to me, and makes me want to read more something nonfiction by Tim O'Brien.
Also, the setting of The Lake of the Woods was a good pick and he did a great job of making me feel the emptiness and monotony of the place, in spite of its apparent beauty. I ended up exploring the google earth Lake of the Woods for a good half hour, and indeed it is immense and foreboding. I could easily see someone getting lost in a boat out there. I also liked the cartographic anomaly of “The Angle” and how this could have been incorporated more into the book.
So, what does Mr. O'Brien want us to get out of this story? Some things come to mind: the Vietnam War could make a kinda creepy guy into a really messed up creepy guy; or in the end it doesn't really matter if a guy gets away with murder, there is no point in having closure. Perhaps it is just that society can never be the judge of complex human lives. Was it ambiguity that O’Brien was going for? Or maybe he just couldn’t make up his mind.
Overall, a pretty good story, scarred by creative yet confusing use of post-modern footnotes.
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LibraryThing member pluckybamboo
A great mystery that offers a dozen different answers but ultimately ends ambiguously, but he open feel only adds to the scintillating mystery. O'Brien's characters are slowly revealed through the chapters as more complex with deeper, darker secrets than you could imagine. One of the best features of this novel is the fact that the landscape, nature, and setting in general all reflect the emotions of the characters and their actions; it even reflects the reader's own suspicions. The symbolism in the lake of the woods--and the woods themselves--is amazing.

This novel also begs the question, is a happy ending so difficult to believe in? And why do we need an answer? Isn't the fun of mysteries the not knowing? Once we know the secret to the magic trick, it's not half as charming or clever as we thought...

Overall, a great book, if a little chilling. It certainly makes you think (but not overthink).
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LibraryThing member jesssh
I could not put this book down. An often unsettling and uncertain story that O'Brien executes very well. Beginning with and exploring the issues related to the disappearance of the protagonist's wife in remote Minnesota, the book explores the character's childhood, experience in Vietnam, his marriage, and his political career. The book raises a number of interesting questions about the nature of many relationships, both intimate and otherwise, as well as the nature of memory, issues of loss, and magic, to name a few. A quick, gripping, and provocative read.… (more)
LibraryThing member readheavily
"I don't know, it just seems strange, sort of. How you've figured everything out, all the angles, except what it's for."
LibraryThing member elsyd
This novel is put together in way totally new to me. Some chapters are devoted to the story line. Others are Hypothesis, some are Evidence, and others are flash-backs. I ordinarily don't care for mysteries, but I couldn't put this down. Very well done,even though you know the outcome from the very beginning!
LibraryThing member piemouth
What happens to a marriage when a long-buried trauma surfaces. The trauma has to do with Vietnam, a subject I usually avoid, but I made an exception. Very well done and thought provoking.
LibraryThing member CarolynSchroeder
No one writes about the horrors of the Vietnam War, from those who were there, than O'Brien. Having long ago read "The Things They Carried" and loved it, picked up a copy of this one at a used book sale. This book is enormously disturbing on so very many levels, e.g., a U.S. soldier carrying out unhuman orders; a man living with the horror as he tries to assimilate back into life; reflection of an alcohlic father who died far too soon; a troubled marriage that was obsessive from the onset; and that past that brings a politician crumbling down. O'Brien is also a master of the surreal ... is it real, is it not, is it imagined? But all that said, the overt mystery we never see solved grew tedious for me. The character development is so excellent and the outside "evidence" sources fascinating, but the book basically has various endings and lets the reader draw conclusions as to what happened. That ultimately made it a rather unsatisfying read as it felt like snippets of life, not a true story. I guess the point is that life is a mystery, but still, I had hoped for more. But I am glad I read it, the vivid imagery, both good and bad, will resonate for some time, it is that powerful. Only recommended for those with incredibly strong stomachs (the most horrific "fictional" scenes of war in recent memory) and a desire to learn about the dark underbelly of human nature. Not for everyone, but if you like your fiction dark and disturbing, you will like this one.… (more)
LibraryThing member csweder
Pretty good book...doesn't just TELL you what happens (you have to decide for yourself)...and it makes one wonder, what does your decision on the book say about your view of human nature?
LibraryThing member sturlington
I hesitated about recommending this book, but it is so powerfully written, and some of the scenes – particularly the more horrific ones – are so vivid that I had to recommend it solely on that basis. (I won’t reveal the particulars of one very powerful scene, but I am sure the grotesque events described in excruciating detail will stay with me for a very long time.)

The main problem I had with this book is that it focuses almost completely on two incidents in the main character’s life: his participation in the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam War and an incident in an isolated cabin at a northern Minnesota lake many years ago. Granted, these are the pivotal events of John Wade’s life (as is the suicide of his father, which is also constantly touched upon), but the narrative continually circles these two events, so that after several chapters it feels as if we are going over the same ground over and over again. We crave some new information, and the horror loses its power to horrify, particularly in the Vietnam scenes. The book spirals back out of this pattern at the end when it becomes very dark, very disturbing and very engrossing yet again.

Another reason I liked the book was its narrative structure; it reads like the unfinished manuscript of a frustrated true-crime writer. This unnamed writer gradually becomes another character in the story, whose obsession with what happened at the Lake of the Woods and the mystery of Kathy Wade’s disappearance drives the story forward. At the end, this mystery is never neatly solved, which may annoy some readers, but I enjoyed the ambiguity and the opportunity to make up my own mind about what happened between the husband and wife in the dark night.
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LibraryThing member elizabethn
good, with a weirdness to it.
LibraryThing member athenaharmony
Four stars for this one on the basis of the writing alone. Every time I closed this book, having to go off somewhere instead of finishing it all at once like I wanted to, I felt satisfied by the little taste of excellent writing I'd received. O'Brien pulls the reader right into the story, putting us in uniform right beside Sorcerer in Vietnam, and shoulder-to-shoulder with John as he sneaks around spying on Kathy. An overarching feeling of hopelessness seems to seep right out of the pages, making the reader sympathize with the characters, if not exactly like them. Yes, John's stalker-ish behaviour is strange and creepy, and the soldiers' actions in Vietnam horrific, but, in some way, O'Brien makes you understand where they're coming from.

That said, if you're looking for a typical "mystery," in which we eventually find out what really happened and everything is explained, you're going to be sorely disappointed. Nothing in this story is as concrete as that, but it's beautiful to read.
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LibraryThing member Hagelstein
John Wade has just badly lost a primary election for U.S. Senator from Minnesota after revelations that he was one of the soldiers involved in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. John and his wife Kathy have retreated to a secluded cabin at the Lake of the Woods. After Kathy and a boat go missing, neither to be seen again, there is speculation about whether she ran away or if John had a hand in her disappearance.

John was known as Sorcerer in Vietnam because of his practice of magic and trickery. He began magic as a child as a way to control something in an unhappy life. He’s still a tortured person and his love of Kathy is so intense as to be unhealthy.

The truth of what happens to Kathy, and later John, is withheld, just as John has always attempted to conceal the truth of who he is and what he’s done. He’s hidden his true self from the voters, Kathy, everyone.

In The Lake of The Woods can be considered an indictment of politicians, politics in general, certainly the Vietnam War, and war itself. The book tries to explore what can’t be fully comprehended: why people do the terrible things they do to each other, and how do they attempt to overcome it.
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LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
This is many different stories rolled into one. It is the story of an abused childhood. It is a vicious Vietnam War documentary. It is a quiet mystery. It is a love-with-abandon story and a tangled tragedy. John Wade is an Vietnam vet who lost the election for a seat in the U.S. Senate. The campaign was a complete disaster prompting John to take his wife, Kathy, to a secluded cabin in Lake of the Woods, Minnesota, so that he might lick his wounds in private. After a week away from the world Kathy inexplicably disappears. Using flashbacks to John's childhood, college days, tour in Vietnam & relationship with Kathy, John's psychological history is revealed. As a young child his father taunted him about his weight, teased him relentlessly about his obsession with magic. John learned at an early age to hide his feelings by imagining mirrors in his head, mirrors that reflected the world he wanted to live in and how he wanted people to treat him. In college his obsession with his future wife Kathy was like a sickness. He would spy on her incessantly, claiming he loved her too much to leave her alone. He would not spend hours doing this, but entire days. Then there was Vietnam. His enduring love of magic prompted the soldiers in his company to nickname him "Sorcerer." This, along with the mirrors still in his head, allowed John to become someone else during the atrocities of war. He believed his violent actions were not his own because they belonged to Sorcerer. Throughout dating in college and during the political campaign as man and wife Kathy and John's relationship was never on the same page. He spied. She needed space. She wanted children but when she became pregnant he convinced her to abort. He loved the campaign trail. She wanted off it. But did that mean John had something to do with her disappearance? O'Brien introduces a kernel of doubt when he describes Kathy lost in the maze of rivers beyond Lake of the Woods. The boat is missing after all...… (more)
LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
This is one of those books that you need to read fairly quickly in order to get the full effect, but it is an easy read with an engaging (if nontraditional) format. O'Brien will draw you in and keep you engaged here, in what you could call nontraditional mystery or literary fiction. If you're looking for entertainment, it's worth a read.… (more)
LibraryThing member csweder
Pretty good book...doesn't just TELL you what happens (you have to decide for yourself)...and it makes one wonder, what does your decision on the book say about your view of human nature?
LibraryThing member Maebsly
This is the first Tim O'Brien book I've read and I was really surprised and wonder why I haven't read his books before. It is a well-written, intelligent story. In the Lake of the Woods is about a disgraced politician with a secret in his past whose wife goes missing. A very good premise but what really stands out is how it is presented. The past and the present are blended smoothly to sum up the haunted main character and his relationship with his wife. The chapters entitled "Evidence" are unique and offer interesting points of view. I like the whole what if / hypothesis of the story. I found that very intriguing and I liked the fact that I was left to draw my own conclusions. It made me feel more involved with the story. For days after I finished reading it, I was still thinking about it and wondering "what if...". I will definitely be reading more books by Mr. O'Brien.… (more)
LibraryThing member CatieN
A dark and bleak story of one man's fight to stay sane, a man who was damaged by his father's alcoholism and suicide and then further by the Vietnam War, having been with the company that was at Thuan Yen with Lieutenant Calley. When John Wade's wife goes missing, questions and theories abound. This isn't a feel-good book, but it is a thought-provoking book showing the reader that there are many shades of black and white.… (more)
LibraryThing member techeditor
How could I not have read this book sooner? It’s been around since 1994. Maybe you, too, have been missing out on IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS for 20 years. Read it now.

It’s about a politician and his memories and his need for love. It’s about keeping secrets, the effects of war, a missing wife, and some possible explanations. But it’s the way this story is told that makes this book unputdownable.

I won’t tell you the story. Read it. And read the footnotes.
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