One day after school, 13-year-old Noah is being tormented by Zephyr and Fry, two neighborhood high-school bullies. The sophomores chase Noah into the woods, place him in a chokehold, and taunt him over his drawings of “naked dudes,” ignoring Noah’s explanations that he has been drawing studies of Michelangelo’s David. Noah is worried that if Zephyr and Fry keep flipping through his sketchpad, they will reach the drawings he did earlier of two men holding hands as they emerged from the ocean after surfing. When Zephyr and Fry reach a close-up drawing of David’s genitals, they explode into laughter, and Noah can swear he hears their laughs echoing through the forest.
The novel’s opening scene establishes that Noah is an outsider and a loner who values art above human connection. It also features the bullies’ misunderstanding of Noah’s fixation with Michelangelo’s David, one of the most famous nude sculptures in history, to introduce how uncomfortable Noah is both with his own sexuality and others’ perception of it.
Fry begins ripping up some of Noah’s drawings, but Zephyr tells him to stop. Noah knows that Zephyr is showing him mercy because Zephyr has a crush on his twin sister, Jude, a talented surfer who has recently begun to catch the eyes of several boys from school due to her prowess on the waves, her long blonde hair, and her quickly changing body. As Noah thinks of his sister, who is always saving him from trouble, he imagines a portrait of the two of them in which he looks into a mirror while Jude looks out of it.
In moments of hardship or discomfort, Noah turns to the “invisible museum” within his mind (like this imagined portrait) as a means to comfort himself, cope with his feelings, or mentally escape the situation at hand.
Fry drops Noah’s sketchpad, but Zephyr then orders Fry to pick up Noah’s legs—Noah knows they are going to throw him over one of the many steep cliffs where their Northern California town, Lost Cove, meets the beach. Noah goes berserk, whirling and punching and squirming like an eel. As Noah tussles with Zephyr, Noah realizes with misery and embarrassment that he has developed an erection. Zephyr suddenly drops Noah, to Fry’s confusion. Noah, on the ground, pulls his knees to his chest to hide his erection and waits for Zephyr to begin beating him in earnest. He imagines another self-portrait entitled Funeral in the Forest.
Noah’s embarrassing sexualized response to being in such close proximity to another male body demonstrates how starved he is for connection, even when it’s accompanied by anger, ridicule, or derision. Noah again retreats into the invisible museum in order to escape his shame.
Zephyr orders Fry to leave Noah, and the two of them grab their surfboards and head back to the beach. Fry warns Noah that they’ll get him again—when he least expects it. Noah gathers up his sketchpad and runs as fast as he can from the woods until he finds a cave to hide in. There, he pulls out his charcoal and sketchpad and blacks out several pages, filling up the rest of the notebook. He entitles the “series” Boy Inside a Box of Darkness.
As Noah narrowly escapes even more intense harm and humiliation, he turns to his art for comfort, escape, and as a way to process his feelings.
The next night at dinner, Noah, Jude, and their parents, Dianna and Benjamin Sweetwine, are gathered around the table. Mom announces that earlier that day, Benjamin’s deceased mother, Grandma Sweetwine, “joined her for a ride in the car” and delivered a message. Noah and Jude are enraptured by their mother’s story, and demand to know Grandma Sweetwine’s message was. Mom dramatically tells the story as Noah and Jude’s father, who doesn’t believe in the supernatural, clears his throat and zones out. Noah has trouble connecting with his father—and most of all fears that his father suspects he is gay.
This scene establishes the family dynamics between the individual members of the Sweetwine clan. Jude and Noah’s whimsical nature comes directly from their mother, who encourages—against her husband’s protestations—fanciful ideas in her children. Noah is insecure about his relationship with his father and in thrall to his mother, and is both intensely close to and fearful of his twin Jude.
Dad speaks up to remind Noah and Jude to listen to their mother’s story “metaphorically,” but Mom ignores him and launches into a detailed, ethereal tale of Grandma Sweetwine’s visitation. Noah himself wonders if Mom is just making the story up to make Jude, who misses Grandma Sweetwine terribly, feel better; at that moment, Dad speaks up again and begs for the “Reign of Ridiculous” to end. When Grandma Sweetwine moved in with the family towards the end of her life, she brought with her a leather-bound “bible” full of superstitions, lore, and tips in luck and love. Dad, a scientist, was—and is—visibly uncomfortable with his mother’s influence over the family.
Benjamin’s rational mind and Dianna’s whimsical one result in Noah and Jude feeling pulled in different directions. The two of them want to believe in magic, partly as a way of coping with loss. This theme will recur throughout the novel as greater and greater tragedies befall Noah and Jude.
Mom chides Dad for his practicality and urges him to “embrace the mystery.” As everyone eats their dinner, Noah feels as if the tension between his parents is turning the air around them all black. Jude speaks up and asks what Grandma Sweetwine’s message was after all. Mom animatedly reveals that as she was driving past CSA, the fine arts high school in town, Grandma “swooped in” to urge her to send Noah and Jude there in two years, once they graduate from junior high. Jude is disappointed by the message, but Noah feels as if a window has flown open in his chest.
Once again, in the face of an uncomfortable and painful moment, the thought of his art is the only thing that makes Noah feel better.
Dad reminds Mom—a professor of art and art history—that going to art school might be too focused a trajectory for the children, but Mom insists that the school is one of the best in the country. She excitedly suggests that she, Noah, and Jude start taking weekly trips to the local art museum and having “drawing contests.” Noah can sense that Jude is uncomfortable with the proposal—Jude is an okay artist, but she is so “shiny and funny and normal” that she doesn’t need art in the way Noah does—or, for that matter the way Mom does. Their mother, Noah believes, is a “foundling” who blew in, possibly, from outer space. She was abandoned as a baby at a church in Reno, Nevada.
This passage shows that though art is an essential part of the Sweetwine family, it is really only vital to Noah and Dianna—and even creates tension between the four family members as the whimsical Dianna tries to encourage artistic greatness in both of her children.
Dad and Mom, on the brink of an argument, order “NoahandJude” to take their plates into the other room and finish eating. The two dutifully obey, holding hands as they move to the den. They hear their neighbor’s new parrot, Prophet, squawking out the only phrase he can say: “Where the hell is Ralph?” As they take their places on the couch, Jude expresses her doubts about going to CSA—“California School of the Aliens”—but her indictment of the school as a place where misfits congregate only increase Noah’s enthusiasm. Noah reminds Jude of her “flying women”—sand sculptures she’s been making down on the beach for some time—and suggests that maybe Grandma Sweetwine saw Jude’s “art” and recognized her talent.
The fact that Benjamin and Dianna refer to Noah and Jude as one entity—“NoahandJude”—begins to show that they have difficulty providing their children with the tools to navigate their way out of the codependent relationship they have, and even create situations in which that need for codependency is heightened.
This comforts Jude, who scoots closer to Noah so that they are shoulder-to-shoulder—this position, “the smush,” is how the two were positioned in the womb, and how they sit together when one or both of them needs to feel comforted or calmed. The two sit together in the smush, quiet and still, as sounds of their parents’ argument float through from the next room.
The following weekend, Noah and Jude are at an art museum with their mother—she won the argument, and the two of them are going to apply to CSA the following year. As they enjoy lunch in the café, Noah is unsettled—he can feel that Jude is angry with him because she thinks that his drawings are better than hers. As Noah sketches a group of nearby boys, he overhears Mom telling Jude that Grandma Sweetwine willed her “bible”—an encyclopedia of odd beliefs—to Jude. Jude is elated.
This passage shows the root of Jude’s burgeoning obsession with Grandma Sweetwine’s so-called bible. Feeling left out of the connection Dianna and Noah share when it comes to art and insecure about her own talents, Jude finds something new to latch onto.
As Mom and Jude continue discussing Grandma Sweetwine and ghosts, Mom wonders aloud about what kind of ghost she would be. She decides she’d be “the kind of ghost that interferes with everything,” and would never let Noah and Jude “be rid” of her. Though Mom is being lighthearted, the conversation scares Noah.
This passage foreshadows the role Dianna will take on in the narrative—that of a presence which looms large in Noah and Jude’s lives even after death.
Mom asks to see Noah and Jude’s sketchbooks and examine the work they did while going through the museum. Noah excitedly shoves his book into his mother’s hands, feeling Jude’s agitation increase. As Mom goes through Noah’s drawings again and again, Noah gets an excited feeling inside: he knows that his mother thinks he is talented, and for the first time, believes he can get into CSA. Noah’s happiness is interrupted by a “psychic air raid” coming off of Jude. He can tell that she is jealous of the attention he’s getting from Mom, and recalls that when Grandma Sweetwine was still alive, she warned them that there was enough jealousy between them to “ruin [their] lives ten times over.”
This passage shows the intense rivalry between Noah and Jude—and how much of it stems from the attention they’re getting or not getting from Dianna. They both idolize and revere her, and when one of them receives more of her attention, the other feels pain and frustration. Grandma Sweetwine’s prophecy about the power of jealousy to destroy Noah and Jude’s relationship foreshadows much of the pain and anger that will develop between them as the novel progresses.
Mom quickly closes Noah’s sketchbook and hands it back to him, declaring that drawing contests are “silly” and that the three of them should, from now on, just spend their Saturdays enjoying the museums and the art inside of them. Mom compliments Noah on his drawings—but doesn’t even ask to see Jude’s work.
Dianna realizes—too late—the animosity she’s unwittingly creating in her children and attempts to put a stop to it. Despite her good intentions, she still overlooks Jude.
Noah reflects on a game he and Jude often play. The game is called The Drowning Game, and in it he and Jude ask one another whom they’d save first if both of their parents were drowning—and, alternately, which of them they believe their parents would save first if the situation were reversed. Noah and Jude now “both know” who their mother would “dredge out of the water first.”
Noah and Jude are so deeply affected by their competition for their mother’s affections that they have turned it into a violent and high-stakes game.