Edinburgh, San Francisco, Dublin: Classic Novels of Place

When life has me stressed, there are a lot of books I can’t read. Anything emotionally intense will only make me feel worse – which means my options for reading material narrow down a lot. Lately I  find myself taking a very particular prescription at times like these: what I think of as “novels of place”. These are books centered in one particular city or region, where the goal is to give a glimpse into the everyday lives of many people who live there. I love the opportunity to see how different people navigate their daily routines, and I like the immersion into a city I’ve never been to. Best of all, there’s not enough violence, romance, or angst to be intrusive. If you want to try this genre, here are a few of my favorites and why they work (for me).

44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall-Smith launched a popular series, with the latest installment published in 2017. Set in Edinburgh, Scotland, the novel centers on the residents of the apartment building located at (you guessed it) 44 Scotland Street. The book opens when Pat, a twenty-year-old on her second gap year, moves out of her parents’ house and into a shared apartment in Scotland Street. Hijinks ensue as she meets her roommate Bruce, neighbor Domenica, and the family downstairs including 5-year-old prodigy Bertie. I like this book because it immerses you into all the good and bad things about living in Scotland, introduces you to realistic but quirky characters, and is liberally sprinkled with insightful comments on life, parenthood, attraction, and art. Most fascinating for me was the moral ambiguity of characters like Bruce the narcissist and Irene the pushy mother. I didn’t root for them, but I am intrigued enough to want to know what happens to them, and they make me think about self-awareness and what kind of person I want to be.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin is very similar to the Scotland Street series: it started as a serialized novel (published in installments in the newspaper), launched a popular series, and is centered on the residents of an apartment building. In this case, however, the setting is 1970s San Francisco, and the apartment building is 28 Barbary Lane. Also like Scotland Street, the book starts when a young woman moves into the building: Mary Ann Singleton, a young secretary from Ohio. This is where the similarity ends, however: Tales of the City leans fully into the bohemian diversity of the San Francisco scene, and the domestic dramas involve less art and politics and more intrigue and debauchery. This book has been on my to-read list for a long time, partly because of its unapologetic diversity, and partly because its soap-opera storylines are perfect escapist reading!

Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy is a favorite of both mine and my mother’s. Set in Dublin,  Ireland in the early 2000s, it follows Cathy Scarlet and Tom Feather as they open a catering business together and it completely transforms their lives. This book has more of a cohesive plot than some of the others, along with a good mix of warmth, humor, and domestic drama. While this isn’t part of a series, like the others, if you can’t get enough of Binchy’s Dublin, you can also read its companion novel featuring some of the same characters: Quentins. The best thing about Maeve Binchy’s work, as evident in these books as well as many of her others, is that despite the unfortunate things that happen to her characters – the doomed relationships and betrayals – there’s an equal measure of friendship, true love, and hope to balance out the scales. And isn’t that what we all want to know?

I think that’s the main draw of all these novels for me – the wholesomeness, the strong sense of community and friendship, and the sense that the world keeps turning through all the petty, inconvenient, or unpleasant things that happen. Life goes on, and given time people grow, change, and heal. Oftentimes healing and growth happens because of the people who walk alongside us: friends, neighbors, and even strangers. In some cases, we’re helped by animals, which leads me to my last recommendation: All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot.

Originally published in 1972, this is a true classic, but a perfect gentle read for the stressful times in life, especially for when you’re feeling lost. This biographical work tells the story of a young veterinarian who moves to the Yorkshire region of England to join a new practice. This rural, rugged region of England is full of unique characters, challenging terrain, and many animals. The young vet must treat livestock and pets alike while struggling to earn the respect of the locals. Despite the enormous challenges faced, the book shines with hope, humor, and deep love for animal life. If you’re an animal lover, this book (and its sequels) is a great choice.

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