It would seem I’m hard-pressed to find a novel set in Rhode Island that does not involve a corpse or two. When authors think of the Ocean State, they seem to look at the streets of Providence and the beaches of South County and think, “Ah, this scene can only be improved if the mists unfurl to reveal a dead body.” Or at least, this is what I’m led to believe as I read my way through my New England home state.
Throughout years as a voracious and opinionated reader, I’ve traveled to quaint English towns again and again. Books taking place in California dot the reading map. New York’s asphalt is trod so frequently by fictional characters that visiting the city in reality feels almost familiar. And yet reading about people whose lives are rooted in Rhode Island has proved a rarity. I am shocked and delighted each time I see someone has published a book set here. Has the land of potholes and Dunkin Donuts addictions finally been so blessed? (Here’s a legitimate list of the most popular states for book settings, if you’re curious.)
Here are three visceral reactions I have almost every time I read a book set in Rhode Island.
1. My Heart Skips a Beat
While I’ve visited many major cities in the United States, nothing quite excites me like reading about places I know well. Can it be true, I think? Has the author mentioned a beloved Rhode Island landmark? Since I live in Providence, I cannot deny myself reading books set in the city. Providence: A Novel by Caroline Kepnes is one such guilty pleasure. The eerie, H.P. Lovecraft obsessed novel starts out in New Hampshire, before one of the main characters finds himself in Providence. He mentions and visits various downtown icons: The Dean Hotel, the Biltmore Hotel (now called the Graduate Providence), and Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, to name a few.
Deep in Providence also proves undeniable to me. It’s a brand new YA debut by Riss M. Nielson, perfect for fans of Undead Girl Gang and The Poet X. The story centers on three teenaged girls growing up in Providence. When their best friend Jasmine dies unexpectedly in a car crash, they seek out magic as a way to bring her back. Much of the book is spent catching feelings and catching buses at well-known stops.
There’s references to streets across the city; well-known parks; a trip across the Newport Bridge; comparisons between the in-state universities; and even a reference to the intense sway of spring weather in Rhode Island. (The latter made me actually laugh out loud.)
Dare I say it feels like home to actually read about home?
2. I Turn Up My Nose
After the initial crush of joy hits me, the critical snob in me kicks in with some power. Is there anything worse than someone clearly not completing their field research when writing about Lil Rhody, I wonder? In the case of the books I’ve been reading, yes, there’s nothing worse. Other than, perhaps, the heinous acts of the fictional murderer.
When one author — in a book that shall not be named — begins to describe the local newspaper delivery system, I cannot believe my eyes. The neighborhood they describe I know well, and I can confirm that no one has actual standalone mailboxes at the end of their driveways. Instead, there are letterboxes attached to doors or the shingles along the front of houses. Other geographical references fail to make sense and I nearly swoon in my seat in personal offense.
Sometimes more important tidbits are missing. Where are the stereotypical mentions of frozen lemonade? (At least Ocean State by Stewart O’Nan has this one covered.) The excitement over party pizza, schoolkids salivating over the thick red sauce with nary a shred of cheese in sight? Or coffee milk?
As I listen to one audiobook, the narrator even dares mispronounce the name of a local high school. I instantly stick my nose in the air with contempt. What else am I to do? (Especially since this high school once had a rival cross country team to mine.)
3. The Fear of God Enters My Soul
And finally, when I cool down, there’s a sense of unease that sets in as I read about Rhode Island. It’s very strange to read about horrifying things happening close to home, albeit imaginary things. One of the reasons I think I may love watching detective television shows set in countries outside of the United States is because it’s — quite selfishly — easier for me to focus on dark realities when they’re not happening around the corner. This stands true with reading books.
It’s chilling to process the murder in Vanessa Lillie’s thriller Little Voices that happens in a cemetery I’m quite familiar with. I can’t spend too much time focusing on the very real possibility that the dead can be found above ground as well as below. In Ocean State, one character heads to South County beaches again and again, put on edge by the stormy weather on the water. She is later murdered, and I am sufficiently spooked.
Amidst my pendulating feelings of worship and weariness, care and contempt, there’s also a sizable part of me that simply loves seeing Rhode Island in the written spotlight. The stories are often dark, riddled with rage and grief and fear. Some of this I can understand. But the charmingly snobby coffee shop culture, the bright loveliness of walks along Blackstone Boulevard, the suffocating pains of growing up in the smallest state… I simply cannot say no to reading about it, time and time again.
Curious about what else I’m thinking about when it comes to books and Lil Rhody? Check out how I create my own main character energy while reading in public.