Multitudes of Milieus

Many novels are mainly set in one or two locales, but some have three, four, or more.

Books that literally jump all over the place can be quite fascinating — offering lots of varied cultural immersion. But they can also feel scattered — and authors of such novels might have to do a lot of (too much?) time-consuming research and travel to get things right.

A plethora-of-places novel I recently read was Eduardo Halfon’s Mourning, a partly Holocaust-themed book that bounces (via present and past scenes) from Italy to Poland to Guatemala to the U.S. — all in just 157 pages. A well-written semi-autobiographical book, but rather dizzying to read.

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner also goes country-hopping — from Afghanistan to Pakistan to the U.S. back to Pakistan and Afghanistan and the U.S.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s compelling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin opens in Kentucky before shifting to New Orleans (after Tom is sold to another slave owner) and rural Louisiana. Meanwhile, the book’s Eliza character escapes the South into Ohio, and eventually ends up in Canada with her husband George before they later go to France and then Liberia.

Of course, sea literature often features many places. For instance, Herman Wouk’s World War II novel The Caine Mutiny starts off in New York City, voyages to various parts of the world (including Okinawa), makes a mid-book stop in San Francisco, and then ends back in NYC.

Edgar Allan Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket begins in…Nantucket…and later moves to the South Seas, the tip of South Africa, and then Antarctica near the South Pole.

Speaking of Antarctica, part of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette takes place on that frigid continent. There’s also plenty of time spent in Seattle — even as Bernadette’s “personal assistant” Manjula lives in India.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is mostly “limited” to one country (the U.S), but protagonist Sal really gets around. San Francisco, Denver, New York City, Virginia, New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, Texas, Mexico City, etc. Road-trip novels can do that — with another example being Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance, in which protagonist Jim Nashe drives back and forth across America for a year.

By no means a road-trip novel, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom does put its characters in places such as Minnesota, West Virginia, Virginia, New York City, and Washington, DC.

There’s also Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch — in which the settings include New York City, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam before protagonist Theo Decker travels all over the U.S.

Maybe the ultimate example of a saturated-with-settings novel is Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days — which moves from England to Egypt to India to Hong Kong to Japan to San Francisco to New York City and then back to London.

Finally, if you look at book series, the roaming Jack Reacher visits many places in Lee Child’s 23 novels. States such as California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia, as well as Washington, DC, and England, France, and Germany.

Of course, some novels and series with geographic gyrations have one character visit various places, while others might have different characters in different places.

Your favorite novels that fit this theme?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about everything from local litigation to a lucrative liquor license — is here.