MEASURE CHANGE OVER TIME.
There are other ways to bring setting alive. One of them is to measure the change in a place over time. Of course, most places don’t change much—only the people observing them do.
Kristin Hannah’s On Mystic Lake is a heading-home-to-heal novel. The lake in question is on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. However, the wounded heroine of the story, Annie Colwater, is a native of the suburbs of Los Angeles.
In the first part of the novel, Annie, immediately after her 17-year-old daughter’s departure for a semester in Europe, is devastated to learn that her husband wants a divorce. Don’t be shocked, but he has taken up with a younger woman at the office. It’s a humdrum setup, yet Hannah deftly uses the very ordinariness of Annie’s world as a starting point for building tension. In this passage near the novel’s beginning, she details springtime in L.A.:
It was March, the doldrums of the year, still and quiet and gray, but the wind had already begun to warm, bringing with it the promise of spring. Trees that only last week had been naked and brittle seemed to have grown six inches over the span of a single moonless night, and sometimes, if the sunlight hit a limb just so, you could see the red bud of new life stirring at the tips of the crackly brown bark. Any day, the hills behind Malibu would blossom, and for a few short weeks this would be the prettiest place on Earth.
Like the plants and animals, the children of Southern California sensed the coming of the sun. They had begun to dream of ice cream and Popsicles and last year’s cutoffs. Even determined city dwellers, who lived in glass and concrete high-rises in places with pretentious names like Century City, found themselves veering into the nursery aisles of their local supermarkets. Small, potted geraniums began appearing in the metal shopping carts, alongside the sundried tomatoes and the bottles of Evian water.
For nineteen years, Annie Colwater had awaited spring with the breathless anticipation of a young girl at her first dance. She ordered bulbs from distant lands and shopped for hand-painted ceramic pots to hold her favorite annuals.
But now, all she felt was dread, and a vague, formless panic. … What did a mother do when her only child left home?
L.A. always feels pretty much the same to me; but then again, I grew up in New England. Shows you how much I know. Who knew that the change of seasons could be measured by visions of Popsicles and cutoffs? By showing me the minute seasonal changes that a SoCal native would notice, Hannah nails spring as seen by Annie Colwater. But that’s not all. This spring, Annie’s usual “breathless anticipation” is replaced by dread. The contrast is jarring—in a good way.