The novel begins with two unnamed characters who, in the aftermath of a primary election, decide to rent a cottage in a place called Lake of the Woods. In the area surrounding the cottage, there are no people or towns whatsoever. The cottage has a beautiful view of the lake, which points north to Canada. The two people have come to Lake of the Woods for solitude, and to be together.
O’Brien begins his novel on a note of uncertainty. We don’t know who these people are or what they’re doing, and while we’ll come to know much more about them as the story goes on, the mood of uncertainty will continue.
The two characters don’t have sex with each other. They have tried sex before, and it didn’t turn out well, though the narrator doesn’t explain any further. They try to cheer each other up, even though one of the characters has lost the primary election, but they both secretly understand that this was a crushing loss. Instead of talking about the primary, they think of potential names for their children. It’s a very sad time in their lives, and they’re trying to be happy.
There’s an immediate tension between appearances—how the characters act around each other—and how the characters really feel. Even though we’ve only just met them, we sense that what lies beneath their appearance is too painful and complicated to put into words.
The two characters think of places to travel. One character, whose name is Kathy, says that she wants to visit Verona, Italy. She and the other character talk about Verona as if it’s a place where nothing bad ever happens.
We begin to learn more about the characters. Kathy’s conversation with her lover (still unnamed) suggests that she’s a dreamer, always fantasizing about how her life could be better than it is.
After six nights in Lake of the Woods, Kathy tells her companion, a man, that things aren’t that bad—together, they can make them better. In less than 36 hours, Kathy will be gone. Nevertheless, she tells her companion that he can get a job with a law firm in Minneapolis, and together they’ll put together a budget and start paying off debts.
For all its metaphysical questions about the nature of appearances versus reality, this novel is also a good mystery. Here, O’Brien makes this very clear by establishing suspense and tension. We know that Kathy is going to disappear—for the rest of the book, we’ll struggle to understand how and why.
The other character, John Wade, tries to be positive as Kathy talks about her plans. He closes his eyes and pictures a huge mountain crushing him. Still, he kisses Kathy and embraces her. He thinks, in disbelief, about the landslide loss he’s endured in the primary election: he was beaten nearly three to one. He was lieutenant governor when he was 37 years old, and a candidate for the U.S. Senate when he was forty. Now, at forty-one, he is a loser. John is humiliated by his loss—he wants to scream “Kill Jesus!” and cut things with a knife. For years, he has been climbing, slowly—and now everything has come crashing down. As he thinks this, he promises Kathy that they’ll travel to Verona together.
Even with all the information about John Wade that we learn in this section, it’s not clear what’s going on. Why John lost the election, or why the loss has destroyed his life is left unexplained (plenty of successful politicians have lost elections, after all). The expression, “Kill Jesus” is particularly frightening because it’s unexplained. Clearly, there’s more than an electoral defeat troubling John. At the same time, we see the tension between appearance and inner life once again. As John thinks terrifying thoughts, he continues to smile and talk about baby names and vacations.
Kathy asks John about having babies. She suggests that she’s too old, but John assures her that they’ll have many children. A short time later, Kathy cries, but denies that she’s crying. She insists that she loves John, and doesn’t care about elections at all. She asks John if he loves her, and he insists that he does. Kathy presses her hand against John’s forehead. Later, when Kathy is gone, John will remember this moment vividly.
O’Brien ends the first chapter on another note of suspense, mentioning for the second time that Kathy will be gone soon. The contrast between the enormity of this prediction and the banality of her behavior creates a sense of dramatic irony that keeps the story interesting: even though we don’t know what’s going on, we know more than Kathy and John do.