Fuse #8 has a great blog post on the allure of fantasy settings in children’s books, and it got me thinking about their real-life counterparts. A well-imagined story can plop you in the middle of a foreign country or distant history. Just as exciting, though, are the books that take place in your backyard. As I kid I was always jealous of people from New York. I didn’t really want to live there. I just wanted to know the city like the back of my hand, so that when I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or The Cricket in Times Square, I would already know every street and corner, all the exhibits that Claudia and Jamie saw.
Growing up in a Massachusetts suburb, I didn’t really expect to encounter a book set in my hometown. Then, in seventh grade, a new boy from Australia transferred into my school. He only stayed a year; his mother, the Australian author Elizabeth Honey, had temporarily moved her family so she could research a new book. She wanted to set the story in America, and one day she visited our class to talk about cultural immersion and getting the lingo right (parking lot instead of car park, for example). Later, when she wrote Remote Man, I got such a kick out of reading about my town. I would’ve enjoyed the book (which can roughly be summed up as ‘teenagers in four different countries meet up online to take down an international smuggling ring’) no matter where it was set, but the location added extra pizzazz. I couldn’t just picture the setting—I had seen and passed through these places for years. Honey wrote about the grocery store I went to every week, the small motel on the side of the highway, the Dunkin’ Donuts next to the high school. Even the local prison, an unmistakable landmark on the way to Boston, gets a scene.
I felt the same kind of excitement when I recently checked out The Ruby Notebook by Laura Resau. It was set in Aix-en-Provence, France, where I lived for a summer during college. And Resau, like Honey, gets the place completely right. The protagonist is an American teen who visits the city for the first time, and the way she describes the fountains, the sunny cafés, the way the light hits the stone buildings, the street performers were exactly as I remembered. But the atmosphere was off. The Ruby Notebook feels enchanted. There’s magic and mystery and a general air of Mediterranean paradise. But I remember too the beggars on the church steps and the homeless families sleeping in front of the Visitor’s Center. There wasn’t a hint of that in Resau’s book, and I wonder if it’s because Aix has changed in recent years (Resau spent a year there during college, more than 10 years ago), or if that side of the city simply didn’t fit the book. I’m not sure it would have added anything to the plot, but it was jarring, all the same, and distracted me from the story.
What about you? Have you ever read a book and thought the setting was exactly right, or perhaps mostly right with some inconsistencies? And did it do anything to change your reading experience?