I'm an Editor in book publishing. All opinions are my own.
I appreciate novels with a strong sense of place, where the setting is itself a character that helps mold the action. I love to discover new locations and time periods, and for the backdrop of a novel to really come alive. But the place or time need not be exotic to bring that keen feeling of place. Recently I've read a few contemporary novels set in New England that really brought some aspect of the region to life for me:
The Good House is set in a small, historic town on Boston's North Shore. The novel really brings to life the pros and cons of life in a small community where some families have lived for generations. Everyone knows each other, and is in each other's business--a huge bother for the heroine, who the whole town knows has been in rehab for alcoholism, and who must hide her continued drinking to avoid judgement. Everyone knows family histories, and the legacies of those histories can live on even in the present, for better or worse. The divide between established townies and newcomers may be vast, and old and new may fit uncomfortably together. It's a lovely, funny novel, and though it's primarily about a woman in profound denial about her alcoholism, there's rich material to be found here about small-town New England.
In The Season of Second Chances, heroine Joy Harkness accepts a teaching position at Amherst College, and impulsively purchases an old, run-down Victorian house that requires massive repairs and a lot of TLC. The novel follows Joy's late-in-life journey to self-discovery, also in a small town, where she finally learns to make real friends and takes an interest in the handyman who is fixing up her house, a young man with obvious knowledge and skill regarding historic homes, but whose life is hemmed in by his needy, controlling mother. I loved the sections about the restoration of Joy's house . . . the vivid colors, the molding, wall papers and paint, everything. Owning a Victorian home is a fantasy for me, but likely an unattainable and impractical one given the work that such homes require. I enjoyed living vicariously through Joy for these parts of the novel.
If Maggie Shipstead's wonderful and hilarious Seating Arrangements brings New England to life, it may not be in a good way. Our hero is Winn Van Meter, and the novel is set on his family's island retreat over the wedding weekend of his daughter. Winn is a quintessential social climber, a man who has had to make his way among people who come from families whose wealth and position is more established than his, and he attaches great importance to such things as his gentleman's club and golf club (so much so that it doesn't occur to him that other people value these things less than he). The book perfectly captures a seedier side of New England high society: the petty resentments that build up over years, the burden of acting "proper," and the never-ending struggle to ascend the social ladder.