Romance with a Compelling Setting

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Romance with a Compelling Setting

One of the most essential principles of books that delve into the different ways we love people is that the book needs to be felt. Part of what makes that happen are the characters themselves: how realistically they are portrayed and how well the author is able to make them feel human, or how much of an affinity they have to our own sensibilities (or to what we can imagine as readers). These affinities ground themselves in the characters, but also in the settings of the books. Below are several books with a strong grounding in their setting that deal in different types of love: unrequited, romantic, familial and based in friendship. Their differences highlight the many ways love can be demonstrated in fiction and all because of the extraordinary way words can give us not just a sense of people, but a sense of place.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Readable as primarily a pastoral book, Tolstoy’s Ana Karenina maintains its relevance as an immersive reading experience for the fact that it forces a reader to engage with and be overwhelmed by the inner lives and personal emotions of the many characters who exist between its pages. Their personal drama is steered into from the very beginning with one of Tolstoy’s most famous lines, a notation on the condition of individual unhappiness, “All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This implication bears out in the circumstances Tolstoy navigates as the book’s journey through the course of their lives, giving a reader the ability to engage with the novel as it teases out the ways our emotions create webs of desire and complication. He tells a detailed and complex story. Romance is part of it, but it is not the whole thing; although, truly, the ability to go from inside a character’s head to the larger picture he paints in the novel of Russia’s societal landscape makes this worth reading by establishing it as both a compelling and a contextually interesting novel.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
Fully feminist through content and plot-established relationships (as opposed to a reliance on lip service to feminism’s buzzwords) this 1987 novel moves through the complexity of women’s relationships and the reliance it’s possible to have on the people in our lives who mean the most to us and who help us to create a life that we find personally meaningful. This book, too, has a heavy awareness of the importance of setting – transitioning between the Whistle Stop, Alabama in the 1920s and then contemporary Birmingham, Alabama as it introduces readers to Idgie & Ruth and Ninny Threadgoode & Evelyn Couch. Both pairs of women get to know and support one another through less than ideal circumstances intertwining what it means to be human and the different ways women can love one another. The connections the characters establish and the humanity this book espouses is a welcome place to spend a few hours (and the movie based on the novel is also owned by DC Public Library).

Just Kids by Patti Smith
No time of artistic exploration is more resonant than when people see you as a source of potential, or you and a creative partner as Just Kids. For Patti Smith, in depicting the circumstances of her extraordinary youth and partnership with Robert Mapplethorpe as they found their adult voices she chronicled the evolution of two great innovative thinkers and artists. With a central focus on their connection, this book lusciously depicts the way it was to live in New York City in the 1970s and to dream of the promise that came with being on the knife edge of falling away from the mundane toward the sublime. Their lives and the way she saw them are fully on display, giving the reader something to marvel over and feel a part of, even with decades of social (and economic) change separating then from now.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Another book about the essential nature of our relationships, this exploration of the theme takes place on a ranch near the US-Mexican border. Magical Realism and cooking both play an integral role in the story-telling of the author (Mexican novelist and screenwriter Laura Esquivel) as she follows Tita, a young woman in love with Pedro, a man she can never be with as a result of her family’s traditions. When she is cooking, she is free but in many other instances finds herself subject to her obligations and family pressures. Throughout the novel, she and Pedro maintain their strong connection despite all obstacles. She is consumed by her feelings for him, though, and the sensual nature of the book with its emphasis on her embodied experiences taken to the realm of magic leads to an incendiary conclusion, one that cautions the reader as much as it informs.
 
Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Remains of the Day by Nobel Prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro was written in 1989 and reflects a time period even further back, drawing on Ishiguro’s British upbringing. Occurring in the 1950s with reflections back to the 1920s and 1930s, the novel follows another instance of difficult love, also based on social circumstances. Mr. Stevens, the narrator believes first and foremost in his dignity as a butler. He maintains this allegiance in a very stoic way, even when brushing up against the possibility of a romantic relationship with Miss Kenton, a woman he has a professional working relationship with, who clearly demonstrates a reciprocated interest. A genuflection much more than a novel in the heart of its action, readers are able to respond at their leisure to the plot as it occurs in such a measured and careful way, demonstrating the temperament of its main character and the way in which time always seems to keep flowing, sometimes right past us.