Readers know the importance of compelling settings in novels – we hope writers do too. Some people would claim that character and plot are king. However, it’s not unusual for readers to first recall a certain region, a piece of geography, a neighborhood or city depicted in a novel when they think of it. While these settings may be the context for the whole story, sometimes, they are the backdrop against which only a number of important or climatic scenes develop.
Well-written settings create atmosphere; they may drive the plot, and even become as important as a main character. Often, readers are so enraptured by book settings (although the story will most certainly take place in a different time or era), they will wish to visit some of them. Yours truly, for example, is a stickler for visiting places depicted in books – or in their movie adaptations for that matter – when my travels take me anywhere near them.
In this post I’m sharing with the reader some of my favorite settings in novels. Please let me know how you feel about them. Also, if you wish, list and describe your favorite settings in the comments section below.
The Curious incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. The London Underground.
After seeing the London Tube through the eyes of the highly functioning – yet socially inadequate – autistic 15-year-old Christopher Boone, the charismatic narrator of this stunning novel, readers will agree the Underground is the perfect metaphor for the lair of imaginary or real monsters we all need to fight and overcome in the course of our lives. The Tube, with its vibrant atmosphere, train noises, buskers and the multitudes of daily travelers rushing down its corridors. can certainly be an overwhelming experience for someone like Chris, or readers who are not entirely comfortable with crowds and frenzy.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. Yorkshire.
This region of northern England, swept by winds and storms, as depicted by Emily Bronte, is the ultimate expression of a romantic and dramatic landscape: wild, visceral, and passionate. This remarkable setting, of course, matches the personalities of the novel’s unforgettable characters, Cathy and Heathcliff, who roam the region’s bleak moors – alive and dead! The historic county of Yorkshire is, by the way, the largest and one of the greenest in the UK.
The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe. New York City.
Wall Street, Park Avenue and the Bronx are forever linked in many readers’ minds to the fate of naïve bond trader Sherman McCoy, one of the masters of the universe – in his own egocentric and distorted self-assessment. At a key plot point, Sherman misses the exit into Manhattan on his way back from Kennedy Airport, where he drove to pick up his mistress Maria. The journey ends up in a nightmare, when the couple gets involved in a hit-and-run accident, killing a black young man in the Bronx. Sherman, the superrich yuppie, becomes the perfect target: he will be used as a scapegoat and brought down by the petty political interests of the various ethnical and professional lobbying groups of 1980s New York.
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. The Cliffs of Insanity.
The first image that crosses my mind whenever I hear someone mention The Princess Bride are the Cliffs of Insanity (gosh, do I love this silly name!). Although this is a fictitious setting, the movie version – which was the first contact most of us had with this incredibly entertaining post-modern fairy tale – uses the real breathtaking Cliffs of Moher, in County Clare, Ireland, as the location. Facing the Atlantic, those rugged imposing cliffs are among Ireland’s most spectacular natural sights.
Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Detroit, Michigan. USA.
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974”. This is one of the most intriguing opening lines in contemporary fiction. Middlesex is not only a powerful and moving journey into human sexuality, gender issues and identity, but also the three-generation saga of a Greek-American family, the Stephanides, migrating from a small village overlooking Mount Olympus all the way to Detroit, Muchigan – an improbable destination, where readers experience the story of the city from the Prohibition days, moving through its glorious days as the Motor City, and witnessing the race riots at the end of the 1960s – and beyond. An American epic.