Seven Books Where the Setting Exposes the Characters

Unchanging environments are a useful narrative tool to show readers just how much a protagonist has grown.

A picture of a boy in front of a house on a page that says "Chapter XII."
Getty; Gabriela Pesqueira / The Atlantic

Late summer so often feels like a season of returning, to all sorts of places: home after months away; school to measure up for another year; an annual vacation spot, where, if beach reads are to be believed, an awkward childhood best friend has magically transformed into a semi-available bombshell with a dark secret. But it’s not only those beachy books that send characters back to familiar places, and it’s not just summer that sparks return.

When writers bring us back to a location that they’ve already visited, they’re employing a useful narrative tool. The contrast with unchanging environments is a clear way to illustrate how a protagonist changes over the years. But it can also be a subtler measuring stick of how secrets simmer, or of how painful, powerful forces such as racial injustice or economic inequality can grind characters down over time. The books below show how a setting can reveal the depth of those tensions, and how people respond to their circumstances at different periods in life—for better or worse.

The cover of Crooked Hallelujah.

Crooked Hallelujah, by Kelli Jo Ford

In Ford’s woven family story about four generations of Cherokee women, a young mother named Justine uproots her daughter, Reney, from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and heads across the Red River to Bonita, Texas. She’s following a kind but callow horseman named Pitch—and a need for independence. From there, Reney and Justine move back and forth between the two places. They’re pulled home by family and an ache for familiar landscapes; they’re pushed out by frustration at Justine’s mother’s religious hard lines, or by the lack of jobs and choices on the reservation; the right place is never quite clear. The book moves from the ’70s to the near future, shifting perspectives as it goes. In simple, detail-studded prose, Ford weaves stories of abuse, heartbreak, and the untold histories that shape the actions of people who are tough and tender, trying the best they can. In the end, when Reney has to help Justine make a near-impossible choice about whether to stay in Texas in the face of calamity, her decision shows how a place can pull generations of people together, and how we often embody our mother’s traits, even if we don’t want to.

The cover of To the Lighthouse
Penguin Vitae

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s novel about the Ramsay family and their guests at their summer house in the Hebrides is famous for its modernist narrative style, which cycles through a shifting chorus of the characters’ thoughts and senses. It’s an account of two largely uneventful days, spaced 10 years apart. The action comes from Woolf’s focus on the characters’ bubbling streams of consciousness, which clue readers in to the ways that the guests perceive, and misperceive, themselves and one another. For example, on the first night, Mr. Ramsay is irrevocably miffed when the visiting poet, Augustus Carmichael, asks for a second bowl of soup; another guest falls a little bit in love with Mrs. Ramsay when she pays him some cursory attention, not realizing that she’s just being polite. When the story returns to the house 10 years later, after the First World War, Woolf digs into how those types of ossified connections play out. Back in a place that exposes their old feelings, two of the teenage Ramsay children struggle to connect with their father, in part because of their assumptions about how he regards them. When one of the returning guests, Lily Briscoe, thinks back on the first summer, she realizes just how invented her assumptions about other people can be. “Not a word of it was true,” she thinks. “She had made it up; but it was what she knew them by all the same.”

The cover of Sag Harbor

Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead

Each summer that Benji, the close-to-autobiographical narrator of Sag Harbor, and his friends return to the beach, they “just became more of ourselves,” he observes. “Where were we the next summer? A few inches closer to it.” The teenage cohort in Whitehead’s novel about the titular Black oceanside community are trying to figure out how to be, as Benji says, “black boys with beach houses.” They’re feeling out the margins of race and class and social pecking order while also trying to figure out the pressures in their own homes and friendships. What really makes the book—and makes it so fun to read—is Whitehead’s sense for the rhythms of teenage speech and the details that pivot between goofy and gutting, such as the BB that gets lodged near Benji’s eye during an ill-conceived shoot-out. The BB is emblematic of youthful recklessness, but it also foreshadows what happens to some of those Black boys. The repeated summers at Sag, an almost-fantasyland with minimal parental supervision, are steps toward figuring out who they want to be, and they offer models for who they could become. At a Labor Day barbecue, most notably, Benji sees people who could easily be him as a child and others who could be his older self—his past and his potential futures.

The cover of Circe.
Little, Brown and Company

Circe, by Madeline Miller

When Circe, the daughter of Helios, is banished to the island of Aiaia for defying Zeus and showing herself to be a witch, it seems like she’ll be a solitary exile forever. But in Circe, Miller’s novel that retells The Odyssey, she finds that her island can also be a waypoint for visitors—and some, such as Odysseus, return multiple times because of her appeal. Miller’s book casts the witch as a complex protagonist instead of the one-dimensional villain she is commonly portrayed as, and it centers on the relationship between Circe and Odysseus, unraveling the connections that come from it—such as the fate of their child, Telegonus, and that of Odysseus’s wife and son, Penelope and Telemachus, who all make their way back to the island. On Aiaia, they all have to face hard choices fated by the gods—and decide if they want to confront their destinies head-on. Miller has written two books that rework Greek legends; her other is The Song of Achilles, a retelling of the Iliad. By reweaving those foundational stories and giving us Circe’s perspective on growth and change over generations, she eventually tells a story about advocating for the choices you want, even if it doesn’t seem easy.

The cover of Summer Sisters

Summer Sisters, by Judy Blume

If you are a woman of a certain age, it’s possible that Blume taught you something through her young-adult books about how complicated sex, friendship, and growing up can be. She notches up the complexity and the emotional resonance in Summer Sisters, her adult novel about Caitlin and Vix, two friends who spend every teenage summer at Caitlin’s family house on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s where they grow up, together and alone. At first, it’s a haven for their shared independence, and some of Blume’s most evocative scenes display the weirdness of their friendship and habits. But during their visits in adulthood, the island becomes a marker of how much they’ve moved away from each other. Blume, with the same clarity that she used to write about first periods and bullying, digs into that all-consuming rawness of early relationships where you feel like the other person is a part of you. When they both choose to come back to the Vineyard, Caitlin and Vix have to face the ways that betrayal will shape their friendship forever.

The cover of Brideshead Revisited.
Little, Brown and Company

Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh

Oh, you wanted complicated male relationships too? When Charles Ryder shows up at Oxford and falls in with Sebastian Flyte, the alcoholic son of a high-society Catholic family, he makes a connection that will end up shaping all of his biggest life choices. The book opens with Ryder, an army officer, stationed at the Flyte family home, Brideshead, which has been requisitioned during the Second World War. From there, it shoots back in time to the beginning of his relationship with the place and details his subsequent visits, where we learn about his relationship with Sebastian, Sebastian’s sister Julia, and the way their complicated family history and religion will intertwine with his own. He loves them both, even though he struggles to understand the guilt and obligation they feel around Catholicism and how those feelings drive them away from him. In a section that describes Charles’s last visit to Brideshead before the war, we finally see why he can never break through to the Flytes and why coming back to the house is so painful.

The cover of Home

Home, by Marilynne Robinson

The most obvious return is to where you grew up, and in Home, Jack and Glory Boughton, two of the moralistic Reverend Boughton’s children, have both returned to Gilead, Iowa, for different, desperate reasons. Glory, who has come to care for her ailing father after an embarrassing failed engagement, feels like she’s in her own nightmare: “The one where all the rest of you go off and begin your lives and I am left in an empty house full of ridiculous furniture and unreadable books, waiting for someone to notice,” she says to her brother. Jack, the prodigal son, is home after two decades away and a long stint in prison. He’s anguished and heartbroken, battling alcoholism; he doesn’t have anywhere else to go and is “right back where I started,” he admits to Glory. He wants to figure out if he can redeem himself, a question he brings up to his father and his father’s best friend, Ames. It’s not easy, particularly because he, his father, and Ames must battle through decades of distrust and differing views on morality to reach healing. As their father gets closer to death, and Jack and Glory both try to figure out their futures, Robinson leans into that idea of redemption, and how hard it might be to get there. As Glory asks toward the end, “Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?”

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