I recently had the good fortune of hearing Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout speak about “Why Fiction Matters” at Seattle Arts and Lectures. One of the themes she addressed was a strong sense of place. Not all writers have one, but Strout certainly does. If you’ve read Olive Kitteridge, Amy and Isabelle, or Abide with Me, you know how much a sense of place—specifically Strout’s native New England—informs her fiction writing.
Strout’s talk got me thinking about how much a strong sense of place appeals to me as a reader. I am especially drawn to books set in places I know. Although many of the themes in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet are universal, the book is grounded in a very particular moment in a very particular place. It’s that strong Seattle setting that I know so well that drew me to the book in the first place and kept me reading.
Here are a few of my favorite novels set in the Puget Sound area. Not all of them evoke that same strong sense of place as Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. But if you’re like me, you’ll still get a kick out of the familiar settings.
Fledgling by Octavia Butler
If Twilight taught us anything, it’s that Washington State is rife with vampires. And yet I was surprised to learn that Snohomish County—Darrington in particular—is home to a society of Ina (Butler’s personal spin on the vampire mythology).
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
Enzo, a philosopher trapped in a dog’s body, struggles to keep his family together despite a series of unfortunate events. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll recognize a lot of the places mentioned in the book, which is set in Seattle.
The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch
Miles O’Malley discovers a beached giant squid near his home in Olympia. As the only person to see a live one, he quickly becomes a local curiosity and is later hailed as a prophet. But he’s just a thoughtful boy caught up in his parents’ fighting, an unrequited crush, and a love for the natural world in this beautiful coming-of-age tale.
The Ruby Oliver series by E. Lockhart
This young adult series is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. Charming and neurotic Ruby Oliver struggles to cope with family, boy, friend and school drama. She lives in Seattle—on a houseboat no less—and experiences drama all over town.
What are your favorite books with a local setting or with a strong sense of place?