We Went to the Woods: A Novel

We Went to the Woods: A Novel

by Caite Dolan-Leach

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Overview

They went off the grid. Their secrets didn’t. For readers of The Secret History and The Immortalists comes a novel about the allure—and dangers—of disconnecting.

“A sharp, spellbinding cautionary tale, one that reminds us that even those who do remember the past might also wind up repeating it.”—NPR

Certain that society is on the verge of economic and environmental collapse, five disillusioned twenty-somethings make a bold decision: They gather in upstate New York to transform an abandoned farm, once the site of a turn-of-the-century socialist commune, into an idyllic self-sustaining compound called the Homestead.

Mack, a publicly disgraced grad-school dropout, believes it’s her calling to write their story. She immediately falls in love with all four friends, seduced by their charisma and grand plans—and deeply attracted to their secrets. But it proves difficult for Mack to uncover the truth about their nightly disappearances and complicated loyalties, especially since she is protecting her own past.

Initially exhilarated by restoring the rustic dwellings, planting a garden, and learning the secrets of fermentation, the group is soon divided by intense romantic and sexual relationships, jealousies, slights and suspicions. And as winter settles in, their experiment begins to feel not only misguided, but deeply isolating and dangerous.

Caite Dolan-Leach spins a poignant and deeply human tale with sharp insights into our modern anxieties, our collective failures, and the timeless desire to withdraw from the world.

Praise for We Went to the Woods

We Went to the Woods is a chillingly cautionary tale for the twenty-first century, an enthralling story of failed nobility and the consequences of trying to escape from a world that will never let you go. Caite Dolan-Leach’s prose is both nimble and elegantly evocative, leading the reader through the idyllic pastures and deadly pitfalls of a rustic experiment gone wrong. As five hopeful idealists try to live off the land, the reader sees their friendships blossom, and yet we hardly dare look, knowing as the seasons turn that something even darker than winter is on its way.”—Christopher J. Yates, author of Grist Mill Road and Black Chalk

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399588884
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/02/2019
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 465,141
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Caite Dolan-Leach is the author of Dead Letters and a literary translator. She was born in the Finger Lakes and is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and the American University in Paris.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The day I met Louisa was not a good one. I woke early, as I had been doing since my ignominious homecoming, and, in spite of myself, reached for my phone. After everything that had happened on the show, I’d publicly tweeted an apology before shutting down my Facebook and Instagram and Twitter; all had become so toxic that just the sight of those little icons on my screen made my stomach flip with dread. My email, however, was still a miserable depository for the anger that could no longer be directed at my body or my social media. I opened it every morning despite the regularity with which threats and hatred found their way to me through the Internet.

This morning, there was just one new entry. I thought this might bode well for my day, even for my (shattered) future. Perhaps it signaled a downtick in the rage I had sparked? After all, how long could this group of strangers pursue me?

Today’s email was not from the usual crowd of pissed-off spectators, however. I could typically disregard those messages as the words of (justifiably) frustrated but abstract strangers. This email was from Sara, my betrayed housemate, and she was calm and reasonable and direct, as ever. We hadn’t communicated since she had publicly denounced me, and reading her words made me shudder with guilt. She couldn’t forgive me, she said, but she needed to move on from what had happened and I should too. I threw up in the bathroom, clutching the cold tile of the floor and inhaling the ammoniac reek of piss, before I read the email again. Crouched on the shaggy blue shower mat, I looked at Sara’s words again and again, and wished I could undo what I had done. I had replayed that disastrous interview so many times to myself, with so many eloquent justifications spun out soundlessly in the dark of my bedroom, rehearsed for an imagined audience. But this morning, reading her email, there was no denying that what I had done couldn’t be excused. Whatever my delusions, I had badly f***ed up. 

During the last few months, I had developed a schedule to accommodate my desire to avoid my parents, with whom I was living. A disgraced baby bird returned to the nest. Though I sometimes woke while they were puttering around in their nearly silent morning routine of coffee and dry toast and backing vehicles out of the driveway to head drudgingly to work, I would lurk in my room until the sound of their two decrepit cars had faded. I listened to them talk at breakfast, in hushed tones about me and in glowing tones about my little brother, Ben, who was their success story, I supposed. Ben’s friends, Ben’s Future in Finance. Mackenzie’s Failures.

After they headed off, I would go about my own dreary routine. Instead of swapping out sweatpants for something with a zipper, I would plunk myself down on the living room couch and flip open my laptop to begin my desperate daily hunt. Not a lot of jobs out there, however, for someone who had recently been publicly discredited. Occasionally, when I was particularly self-loathing, I would Google myself, which would remind me what my chances of employment really were.

I was an hour or two into my grim scavenging when my phone rang. I pounced on it, irrationally hoping that this might at last be the tug on the line, a fish, however tiny, that I could reel in. I swallowed and growled, to clear my throat, before answering in my very best professional voice.

“Hi, this is Mack Johnston,” I said.

“Changed your name, huh? I know who you are. And what you did. I hope someone betrays your trust as—”

I jerked the phone away from my face, glancing briefly at the number before stabbing the red icon to end the call. I thought I’d successfully changed my number and hidden my tracks after fleeing Brooklyn, but clearly someone had ferreted out my details yet again. The knowledge of my continued visibility made me feel vulnerable, even sitting here, buoyed by low-budget Raymour & Flanigan and my mother’s tacky throw pillows.

Thankfully, I had work today, a catering gig I’d had on and off since high school, and one of the few options for employment open to me. The money was better than nothing but would not allow me to move out of my parents’ house; I was barely able to afford a meager shopping list and the occasional cup of coffee. I had no idea what I’d do when I could no longer defer my student loans. And I was still waiting to hear if there would be a lawsuit, of course.

I was grateful to go to work most days, because it meant leaving the house and escaping my sinister laptop. Because Ithaca is such a small town, I did occasionally  find myself having to answer awkward questions about what I was currently doing and what my plans were, but I was grateful to be doing something, anything at all. If people knew what had happened to me—what I had done—they tactfully pretended not to. Even if most of my days felt useless, days where I came home with some cash felt like they hadn’t been entirely wasted. This depressed me, this feeling that my life mattered only as it was measured out in paper dollars. But most things depressed me at the moment. At least it was harder to mope while up to my elbows in greasy dishwater or passing hors d’oeuvres to a roomful of strangers who were perfectly happy to ignore me. I was enjoying the invisibility of the food service worker.

Until the afternoon I worked a fundraiser and met Louisa.

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We Went to the Woods: A Novel 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Nanna51 8 days ago
This novel is a commentary on society, its flaws, and an attempt to escape it altogether. Louise, Beau, Chloe, Jack Mack all decide to move to an abandoned farm in upstate New York. There, they exchange sexual favors with each other, creating a tension that is under the surface since no one talks about it. Mack is the narrator of the story, and she does a good job of describing the atmosphere of the farm but does not do a good job of describing the characters and their emotions. I envisioned the communes of the 60’s as I read this book and enjoyed the description of the raspberry harvest and the day they got the goat. But the book was very slow-paced, with little or no real action. I had to make myself continue to read it at times because it was so boring and not at all interesting to me since, although I grew up in the 60’s, I was not part of the counter-culture. This book is more of a commentary on a social experiment that goes bad, and the conclusion leaves something to be desired since I was kind of left saying, “Huh?” Readers of social commentary may enjoy this book, but it is not for everyone, and it was not for me. Disclaimer Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Testimonials and Endorsements in Advertising.”
Nanna51 8 days ago
This novel is a commentary on society, its flaws, and an attempt to escape it altogether. Louise, Beau, Chloe, Jack Mack all decide to move to an abandoned farm in upstate New York. There, they exchange sexual favors with each other, creating a tension that is under the surface since no one talks about it. Mack is the narrator of the story, and she does a good job of describing the atmosphere of the farm but does not do a good job of describing the characters and their emotions. I envisioned the communes of the 60’s as I read this book and enjoyed the description of the raspberry harvest and the day they got the goat. But the book was very slow-paced, with little or no real action. I had to make myself continue to read it at times because it was so boring and not at all interesting to me since, although I grew up in the 60’s, I was not part of the counter-culture. This book is more of a commentary on a social experiment that goes bad, and the conclusion leaves something to be desired since I was kind of left saying, “Huh?” Readers of social commentary may enjoy this book, but it is not for everyone, and it was not for me. Disclaimer Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Testimonials and Endorsements in Advertising.”
Anonymous 3 months ago
Your favorite reality show taken to extremes! A group of individuals working together to build a retreat from the world's disappointments and escape the predicted changes to their community. Sound familiar? The Caite Dolan-Leach shares the characters' strengths and weaknesses as they work hard to insure a safe place for them to live when the world goes crazy. At this point, the characters leave familiarity way behind and becomes a unique look into what could happen if....
Momma_Becky 6 months ago
Remember the 60's communes with their off the grid lifestyle, free love, nights around the campfire, etc, etc? We Went to the Woods is kind of like that except we're dealing with millennials. The story opens with a bit of a mystery, and does a fair job of pulling you in. It's also somewhat misleading. From that beginning, I expected something a little creepy, not quite a thriller, but with at least some tension. Unfortunately, I spent the rest of the book waiting for something to happen. Maybe it's just me, but reading about a group of people trying to grow a garden, turn compost, repair a cabin, and get used to less than sanitary facilities just wasn't that interesting. The free love is there, but it's more like a guessing game of which bed is that guy in tonight, at least for Mack. There are secrets, everyone in this group has them, but they really aren't that earth shattering, and the characters aren't all that likable. Things do eventually start to happen, but it wasn't anything to cause me to sit up and take notice. Some of it was tragic, yes, but given the circumstances, it was expected. In the end, I think this one was just a bit too slow for my tastes and can be chalked up to not the the book for me.
HomeSweetHouser 6 months ago
I wanted to like this book so much more than I did. I enjoyed the concept of the book. A group of young adults looking to make a difference in the world. Practicing sustainability. Growing their own food. Trading with local farmers. Trying to find purpose. I can appreciate the mission. Unfortunately, I found the prose to be too long and drawn out. It felt like it was taking forever to get to the point and there was way too much existential/philosophical discussion between all the characters without a ton of movement in the story line itself. There were times when the story seemed to be picking up and moving forward, only to retreat back into a stagnancy. There were a lot of unanswered questions at the end of the story that I found unsettling and unresolved (i.e. who set the tractor on fire, the significance of The Experiment, what happened to Beau, why Fennel was so shady about sending people away from The Collective, etc.). All of that being said, I did like the characters and their somewhat disturbing dynamic. And I enjoyed Mack's constant internal battle and unease with The Homestead. There was some good tension here. It just never really evolved in the way I was hoping it would.
Ratbruce 6 months ago
An intriguing, character driven novel that explores the motivations, emotions, and trustworthiness of five young adults trying to live off the grid. Each of them have skeletons in their closet and varying degrees of transparency about their pasts.
estherreads 6 months ago
By the end of the novel, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed We Went to the Woods, and it sat with me long after I finished reading. In the beginning, the dialogue felt at times unconvincing (too pretentious to be believable), but either the dialogue improved further on in the book, or I became too wrapped up in the story to notice or care. Exploring questions about social responsibility and self-sustainability in today's modern capitalist society, Caite Dolan-Leach's privileged characters make a decision to try an "Experiment." Their experiment involves running away from the modern world—and all of its systemic problems—to live together on a small farm without electricity, growing their own food, taking baths in the lake, and reciting Thoreau in earnest. Readers know from the start of the book that this experiment doesn't end well. Comparisons to Donna Tartt's The Secret History are well-placed; almost all of these privileged characters are unlikeable, relationships and power dynamics, as always, are drama-inducing, and the MC Mack is mostly along for the ride. And yet I couldn't stop reading. We Went into the Woods was really addicting, making the 368 pages fly by. While the book seems to be marketed as pretty intense and dramatic in regards to social relationships, I didn't find that particularly true, and it wasn't what made the book so compelling. I found the relationship drama and love triangles to be the least interesting aspect of the book, and it seems even the narrator gives up on its allure by the end too. Through incremental yet compelling plot points of little disasters and accidents, Dolan-Leach evokes an impending sense of doom that keeps you reading until the final catastrophe. What also makes this novel compelling and different from other similar books was the inclusion of diary entries about other communes and compounds. Since Mack is more or less academic, it was interesting to get wrapped up in her thoughts and attempts to analyze their experiment and place it in context with similar past efforts. While Mack tries to examine and connect different narratives, she ignores what's happening in front of her. These narratives point to themes about repeating, futile efforts to figure out how to live best in the world, and combat our sense of helplessness in the face of a society that doesn't seem to ever change, or care. Overall, it's a really engaging read that speaks to our current moment. And as someone who agreed with pretty much all of these characters' political views, it really hit home (and made me wonder if I ever sound as tiresome as these characters).
Susanlibgirl 7 months ago
This book was not a favorite of mine. I found it difficult to get through, partly because I just didn't like any of the characters. Mack Johnson, after a social media failure decides to try homestead living with a few other people. They live off the land, and I did learn about farming but this novel just didn't grab my attention. I was not sympathetic towards any of the characters. Thank you NetGally for allowing me to read this book.
Alfoster 7 months ago
Having grown up in the 60's, I'm always drawn to books about cults and communes so this was an interesting novel to read. And while I never had a desire to live off the grid, I understand why young people would choose this lifestyle and attempt to live off of what they can produce on their own. So when Mack, on the heels of an embarrassing scandal, rashly decides to move to the Homestead with four strangers, we realize it's her way of starting over and maybe a chance for her to redeem herself. For a while things work well; they share chores, plant vegetables, swim in the pond, and quite literally share each other. But that isn't where it ends. Some are more reactive and crave challenging the status quo by disrupting the "establishment." And of course, that never ends well. This isn't a thriller and the pacing is often slow, but that didn't bother me as it seemed to mirror the seasons and lifestyle they adopted. Overall, I enjoyed the novel as it's very different from what I'm used to reading! Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC!
Jolie 7 months ago
My interest was caught by We Went to the Woods when I read the blurb. I thought to myself, “This sounds like it will be a good read.” In a way, it was. The author was able to showcase how hard it was to form the type of compound that Louisa wanted. She was able to highlight how hard it was to start and the failures that the Homestead went through in the first year. But, at the same time, I had to force myself to finish reading We Went to the Woods. I got bored reading it. The plotline was well written and very descriptive. I wasn’t a fan of how it turned out. Mack had no clue what Louisa, Beau, and Jack were doing. I know that she was kept in the dark, but she should have had a clue when she stumbled upon the weapons cache at the Collective. Instead, she turned into an ostrich. Heck, even Chloe know more than she did. I wasn’t a fan of Mack. The book was told from her perspective (1st person). Her insecurities and her jealousy colored it. It got to the point where I would roll my eyes whenever she made mention of lanterns going between the cabins. The author dragged out what happened to Mack. What she did was disgusting, no doubt. The backlash was disgusting too. I wish that it had been revealed sooner in the book. The bits and pieces that were leaked drove me nuts. I do wish that the author focused more on the workings of the Homestead. I was fascinated at how they were able to make a thriving farm from nothing. I was fascinated by the community they found. I thought that communes were a thing of the past. To find out that there are still communes out there fascinated me. I wasn’t a fan of the polyamorous relationships that were featured in the book. I know people in polyamorous relationships, and they are nothing like what was featured in the book. What was featured was the worst side of those types of relationships. The end of the We Went to the Woods was confusing. I wanted to know what happened to certain characters. I also wanted to know was Mack considering doing what I think she was doing? It was so vague that I didn’t know what was going on.
Anonymous 7 months ago
We Went to the Woods is a very disturbing tale of 5 friends who set out to live "off the grid" and create a modern day utopia, only to find out that such a lifestyle isn't all they expected. The main character, Mack, leaves a disgraced grad school situation, looking to escape and redeem herself and her writing. She experiences love and acceptance with the other residence, as they work the land and barter their produce with other "communes" to maintain their primitive lifestyle. Mack attempts to write a thesis comparing their story with the story of previous residents of the property. The story moves along, sometimes a little slowly, as we learn what is motivating each of the characters' desire to live at the "commune". The ending of the story is hard, but not completely unexpected. This story is incredibly well written and is quite compelling, however, it is not an "uplifting" read. I would recommend it to readers who enjoy a dark, cold story. Thank you to Net Galley for letting me read this book!