Not all romances—or all novels—have a particularly strong sense of place, and not all need one. But I’ve been thinking of the handful of contemporary romances whose setting—world-building, I guess, though in this sense it represents a real place—stayed with me over the past couple of years. Chesapeake Blue was my first Nora Roberts novel. I didn’t know it was part of series when I picked it up. (It stood alone.) What hooked me immediately was the opening and its description of Seth, an artist, coming home.
Maryland’s Eastern Shore was a world of marshes and mudflats, of wide fields with row crops straight as soldiers. It was flatland rivers with sharp shoulders, and secret tidal creeks where the heron fed. It was blue crab and the Bay, and the waterman who harvested them… As he drove across the bridge, his artist’s eye wanted to capture that moment—the rich blue water and the boats that skimmed its surface, the quick white waves and the swoop of greedy gulls. The way the land skimmed its edge, and spilled back with its browns and greens. All the thickening leaves of the gum and oak trees, with those flashes of color that were flowers basking in the warmth of spring.
I loved “straight as soldiers” and remembered it forever. And descriptions of water and ocean, while not the only setting I enjoy, evoke a strong reaction. Seth is returning to a place he loves and this shines through. Suzanne McMinn‘s Cole Dempsey’s Back in Town is a category romance—my favorite category, soon-to-be-defunct Silhouette Intimate Moments—set in Louisana. In the opening, McMinn intertwines backstory and description.
Cole Dempsey stared up the oak-canopied drive to the classic columns fronting the antebellum Bellefleur Plantation. The Greek revival-style monstrosity had filled his waking fantasies and sleeping nightmares for fifteen long and bitter years. Someone owed. He was here to collect.… The mansion rose before him as timeless as the Mississippi that flowed behind it, holding its secrets, its lies, its fears, its ghosts. And sweet, false Bryn Louvel. Now that he was here, the emotions that came with the magnolia-laden air, the river-swept breeze, the memory-churned past hit harder than he’d expected. Amidst the buzzes, hums and whispers of the late-spring evening came the sounds of the past—the mental audio reel of another May night.
Like Seth, Cole is also coming home, but the horror of a certain night is laced through the description, which effectively roots the story in place and makes the reader ask what happened. And how can I not end with Jennifer Crusie, who does much with her book, but certainly manages to evoke small town in Welcome to Temptation. (WTT was also the book that brought me back to reading contemporary romances, so everything within its pages had a strong effect upon me.)
The town proper was on the other side of a muddy river that streamed sullenly under a gunmetal bridge at the bottom of the hill. Beyond the bridge, the land rose up green and lush behind smug little brick-and-frame houses, and as the hills rose, the houses got bigger, much bigger. Sophie knew the kind of people who lived in houses like that. Not Her Kind.… The flesh-colored, bullet-shaped tower thrust through the trees at the top of the hill, so aggressively phallic that Sophie forgot to fidget with her rings as she stared at it. “Hello. Do you suppose they did that on purpose? I mean, you couldn’t accidentally paint it to look like that, could you?” “Maybe Phineas T. is compensating. I don’t care. I love this town.“
Sophie is not coming home. She’s a stranger arriving in a town she believes she will hate: smug and sullen. But Sophie (and Crusie) also has a sense of humor. What are some of your favorite romance settings? Places that have stuck with you for months if not years after reading the book? I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I came back to read these openings, but one thing is certain: each of these descriptions has an emotional component which I believe makes the sense of place more effective and more vivid.