While In the Lake of the Woods is a mystery and a war novel, it’s also a love story. The characters are motivated by their love for other people, and, perhaps even more importantly, their desire to be loved in return. One of O’Brien’s most important points is that the way people express their love for one another often parallels the way they loved and were loved by their families. John Wade’s tense relationship with his father—his father is a charming, likable man, but also an alcoholic who verbally abuses his son and later hangs himself—has a major influence on the way John treats his friends and wife. The absence of unconditional love from his father makes John crave love from other people, and inspires him to perform magic tricks and take up politics as a career. He wants other people to love him so that he feels happier, but he often shows little respect for these other people. Indeed, he controls and manipulates them, as if they’re tools whose only use is to make him feel better about himself.
At the same time, John wants to love other people—he tells Kathy that he wants to go into politics to help people. It wouldn’t be right to say that John is lying when he says this to Kathy. In reality, John’s idea of love is both sincere and insincere. He’s torn between treating people as means to an end and respecting them for their own thoughts and feelings.
Kathy’s love for John is as complicated as John’s love for her. She recognizes that John “needs” love to a greater extent than other people, and for the most part, she is happy to supply it, even when it isn’t returned. Patricia, Kathy’s sister, often criticizes Kathy for putting up with John’s rudeness and manipulation—at one point, we discover that Kathy knows that John follows her wherever she goes, and doesn’t do anything about it. For much of her marriage to John, Kathy seems to think of love as an act of unconditional giving. She loves John, and seems to be satisfied with being a means to the end of his happiness.
The love between John and Kathy, or between John and the people of Minnesota whom he serves, is based on the denial of information. John hides his own personal history, both from Kathy and his constituents, but insists on knowing everything about other people, using manipulation and deception to gain this information. The most obvious problem with this kind of love is that it doesn’t last. Eventually, Kathy responds to John’s deception with deception of her own—she has an affair with a dentist named Harmon. Similarly, the voters of Minnesota eventually learn about John’s experiences in Vietnam, and end their “relationship” with John.
Toward the end of his book, O’Brien implies another model of what love could be. Instead of being an asymmetric relationship, with one lover keeping secrets yet demanding to know everything about his partner, love could consists of the reciprocal exchange of information, based on mutual respect. Thus, John and Kathy could exchange some but not all of their secrets with one another, providing sympathy and support as they do so. There’s no guarantee that John and Kathy reach this kind of love, or if it’s even possible. O’Brien leaves it up to the reader to decide if John and Kathy learn from their mistakes and develop a more equal relationship.
Love and Relationships ThemeTracker
Love and Relationships Quotes in In the Lake of the Woods
He didn’t talk much. Even his wife I don’t think she knew the first damn thing about him … well, about any of it. The man just kept everything buried.
They would live in perfect knowledge, all things visible, all things invisible, no wires or strings, just that large dark world where one plus one would always come to zero.
Humming to herself, Kathy adjusted the tiller and began planning a dinner menu, two big steaks and salad and cold beer, imagining how she’d describe everything that was happening out here. Get some sympathy for herself. Get his attention for a change.
The idea gave her comfort. She could almost picture a happy ending.
And here in a corner of John Wade’s imagination, where things neither live nor die, Kathy stares up at him from beneath the surface of the silvered lake. Her eyes are brilliant green, her expression alert. Se tries to speak, but can’t. She belongs to the angle. Not quite present, not quite gone, she swims in the blending twilight of in between.