Book 1, Chapter 2
Theo recalls his childhood growing up with Xan. At the age of twelve, Theo began traveling to Xan’s home, Woolcombe, to stay with his cousin every summer. He describes young Xan as charming but emotionally remote. Xan, like Theo, dislikes interference or intrusions into his personal life, preferring to remain distant and in control. In fact, Theo feels that Xan liked having him at Woolcombe not because he was actually fond of his company, but because Theo’s presence prevented curiosity about why Xan never invited friends to stay. Although Theo often objectively outstrips Xan—for example, in his marksmanship ability and exam scores—the family shows a preference for Xan, predicting that he will go on to do great things. Theo does not resent this treatment and writes that it was “perfectly natural” to give preference to someone as brilliant and captivating as Xan. Theo recalls that one of his favorite childhood moments was when he and Xan stood on an old bridge on the property, drinking and firing pistols into the air in playful tribute to five cavaliers who, long ago, defended the bridge during the Civil War.
This chapter gives us a look at Xan as a young boy before he became the Warden of England. We learn that, as a boy, he was intelligent, emotionally distant, and captivating. Despite the difference in their upbringings, it is clear that Xan and Theo are quite similar. Like their competitive mothers before them, Xan and Theo seem destined for comparison. That everyone believes that Xan will go further than Theo—despite Theo’s slightly more impressive achievements—speaks to Xan’s ability to captivate and manipulate those around him. Though Theo claims to be unbothered by the obvious preference for Xan, we have to wonder whether or not he is being truly honest. This chapter sets up the complex relationship between Xan and Theo that will continue throughout the novel. On one hand, they are clearly destined to be rivals. On the other hand, their similar personalities allow them to understand one another in a way that other people cannot. Theo’s recollection of their happy day on the bridge shows us that though they each remained emotionally isolated, the two boys still shared a unique camaraderie.