The Broke and the Bookish invites readers this week to talk about setting. As she says, "Today we get a special glimpse into one reason why we love the books we love: the settings and the worlds. A setting can make or break a book for me, especially if it is supposed to be in a world different than our own."
A sense of place and time is one of the most important aspects of fiction for me, and a vivid setting can often make up for a book's other shortcomings. (In the same way, I can often enjoy a movie I wouldn't otherwise care for if the setting is very compelling, like Defiance, or if the cinematography is stunning, like The Water Horse.) Here are a few (not ten, sorry!) of the most memorable novel settings I've experienced, in no particular order.
England between the wars, as depicted in Agatha Christie's mystery novels. To my suburban teenage self, this world in which people travelled by train, wore hats and stockings, had tea parties and cocktail parties, attended plays in the city, and ate off of china was the most exotic and wonderful of existences.
The bleak and paranoid world of the Soviet Union under Stalin, depicted in In The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In hundreds of chapters with alternating points of view, the voices of prisoners, scientists, civil servants, diplomats, intelligence agents, and even Josef Stalin himself build a picture of a system that crushes hope, initiative, and intellect.
Askatevar, a fascinating and forbidding planet far in the future which is the setting for Ursula K. LeGuin's Planet of Exile. This enormous planet is located far from its sun, and therefore its single years are as long as human lifetimes; its earlier seasons are remembered only by the very old.
Russia in the early nineteenth century, in War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy recreates Russia around the time of the Napoleonic invasion. Characters are drawn from every level of society; we care as much about serfs' and prisoners' concerns as those of princes and princesses. Inward spiritual struggles, confused teenage romances, military strategy, and family relations all contribute to the historic panorama.
Any of the exotic rural settings described by Mary Stewart in her suspense novels.
Nobody can describe scenery like Mary Stewart. Greece, Lebanon,
Austria, Scotland, France--these landscapes are still vivid mental
images for me after decades because of Stewart's evocative prose that
appeals to all the senses.
India just after Partition, as depicted in Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. Seth does for India what Tolstoy did for Russia: brings to life an entire society
and all its strata at a particular historic moment, and deals with
every kind of concern, from a mother's dislike of her son's wife, to the
enactment of laws that would end the feudal system of landowners and
tenants in India. We get scenic descriptions, family relations,
parliamentary sessions, religious riots, caste injustices, romances,
friendships, factories and slums. It all forms a wonderfully detailed
picture of the time and place.