The Going-Home-Again Story

My Book Bub feed has been full of blurbs that start out “When Betty is forced to return to the small town where she grew up . . . ” and it makes me wonder: What’s the lure of this story trope?  I’m not criticizing it, I’m just puzzled as to why it’s so powerful that it’s become a sub-genre.  

Full-disclosure: I grew up in a small town and if I never see it again, that’s okay.  I thought that said more about my childhood than it did about the town until my best friend from high school who had lived all over the world got married and moved back home.  At one point, I mentioned to her that my parents wanted me to move back.  “Are you insane?”  she said.  “NO, NO, NO.”  So maybe it’s not just me.  One factor: we’re both flaming liberals and the town is probably Trump Country; I don’t know for sure because my only connection to the town at this point is my brother, and I love him a lot, and he loves me, so we never talk politics.  Ever.

So here’s my question: Why is the going-home-again trope so hot in romance?  Is it a generalized reunion fantasy where you go back and show everybody how cool you’ve become?   Is it akin to the old-boyfriend story it’s often linked with?  Is it nostalgia for a simpler life in small towns (which is a complete crock; living in a city is INFINITELY simpler than living in a small town)?  Is it a romanticized version of the small town that leaves out the gossip, the social pressure to conform, the warring factions, the lack of choices, and the incredible insularity?  I’m clueless on this one.  What do you think?

86 thoughts on “The Going-Home-Again Story

  1. Since I’m hopping on a plane in a few hours to return to the town (city actually) where I grew up, I have a couple of random thoughts.

    1) For some reason, it’s satisfying as you drive around and see the changes to reminisce along the lines of “Oh, we used to go there and get french fries after shopping…” or “Awwww…they built a Safeway where the drive-in used to be (and where I learned the fine art of necking endlessly without going “too far”). Those memories put us in touch with who we used to be and probably contrast with who we are now.

    2) I’ve been gone from there for at least 30 years, but I always turn every corner in anticipation of maybe running into someone I went to school/church/work with…I dunno why as the odds are pretty low that will happen.

    3) But I think you hit on the real reason in your “show ’em how cool you are now” scenario. Probably everyone cringes in some area when looking back, and the lure of presenting a new, improved version of yourself is irresistible – whether it’s a new physical, intellectual, emotional or romantic version.

    Or maybe I’m just looking forward to my mom still treating me like I’m 16 and telling me to button up my coat because it’s cold outside. (I’m 56…I think I’ve got that figured out, Mom.)

    1. One aspect of the “show them how cool you are” thing is that it’s hard not to be cooler as an adult than you were as a middle-schooler. I think I’m at my most relaxed around high school or hometown friends, since they’ve known me through so many weird stages there’s not really much point in artifice. I think that may be an aspect of it – you don’t have to prove yourself necessarily, since some (or a lot) of the people you used to know won’t let you prove yourself. I run into my friend’s mom at the grocery store they’ll probably treat me exactly as they have for the past twenty years and are unlikely to be that impressed by any changes.

  2. I think what you and Tanya said both ring true to me. As someone who grew up in a small town and is also on team “hell no” when it comes to going back. I don’t even really like going for visits, but I will go to see my parents. Trump country, indeed.

    I can see from a writer stand point it’s appealing because you’re immediately putting your character in an environment which *should* be familiar, but can be challenging and will automatically provide questions. How has the town changed? How has the character changed?

    The interesting thing is, depending on your social network, there’s no need to go back to “find out what happened to so and so” or “show everyone you were successful.” I don’t think my high school class even organized any reunions (our 20th would be this year). There were some half hearted discussions on Facebook but it fizzled. If you want to reach out to someone, that’s what Google is for (shrug).

    1. I also wrote something much longer and angrier about my hometown and erased it. It was part of the truth, but not the whole truth. There is kindness there, of course. As there is everywhere. Let’s just say it’s not all cutsey cupcake shops and leave it at that.

    1. I like small town settings because they’re so horrible. It’s like setting a book in Hell. You know everybody (exaggeration) and everybody knows you. Anything you do wrong reflects on your family. Every screw-up you ever did is part of local history. There’s no place to get good Chinese (fixed that for Nita) let alone Thai. The claustrophobia in a small town is overwhelming. Maddie makes most of her mistakes because she’s in a small town and she’s trying to avoid becoming gossip. Quinn is left almost defenseless because the town admires the guy stalking her. Sophie’s problems as an outsider in Temptation almost get her killed. So Liz is just part of a long line of Crusie heroine stuck in hell small towns.

      Beyond that, small towns are great settings because they’re settings that are finite and bounded, essentially islands. It’s the setting version of a time-lock.

      1. Summed up my feelings about growing up in a small town in a nutshell. Now I’m going to have to do a think on this from a writing perspective. Pretty sure I have my heroine in what is for her, a small town. Thank you for the thinky bits!

      2. I grew up in small town in North eastern Ohio. I would stab myself before going back. Few people have seen the rest of the world and I don’t have either the time or the patience to explain the way the rest of the world works.. it’s entrenched Trump country. I miss the hills and can’t believe I’m a flat lander.

        1. My hometown is flat, dropped down in the middle of fields. Our big city is Lima (yep, the Lima from Glee) and the bigger one after that is Dayton, so it’s Ohio’s version of Outer Mongolia. It does have a small but nice river. After that . . .
          I live in a cottage on a one lane road in the woods now, over a small-ish lake. I’m in heaven.

  3. My guess, from reading romances set in small-town USA, is that the appeal is community. There’s a feeling that in the ideal small town all your neighbours would know you and most would care about you and bring you casseroles in your times of trouble. For example, a recent academic article about romance said that

    “The Virgin River romance novels subtly denounce contemporary socioeconomic relationships by presenting an engaging utopian alternative that indeed ‘shatters the order of things prevailing.’ Specifically, the depiction of Virgin River – an imaginary small town in California, population six hundred – suggests a communal mode of living that contrasts in some important ways with the rampant individualism of twenty-first century American society. […] Virgin River […] prioritizes friendships, sharing of resources, and social solidarity above individual achievement and consumerism. In this sense, Virgin River could be considered an expression of utopian imagining.”

    If someone’s left a small town because of problems, then the idea is perhaps that on their return the problems can be fixed and “society reconstituted” in a better way.

    [That “society reconstituted” is a key element of romance is one of Pamela Regis’s ideas in her A Natural History of the Romance Novel. The reference for the article is Neuhaus, Jessamyn and John Neuhaus. 2015. “‘Sometimes It Feels More Like a Commune Than a Town’: Envisioning Utopian Possibilities in Robyn Carr’s Virgin River Romance Novels.” Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 37, no. 2, 2015, pp. 25-42.]

    1. Laura!
      Sorry, it’s just nice to see you again.
      I think the utopian gloss is what makes me avoid those books. As somebody said here in the comments, there’s always a cupcake shop or a bakery or an inn in that kind of book, but a true small town couldn’t support any of those. (Granted, most of the small towns appear to be on bodies of water in these books, which makes me doubt the whole “small town” bit, since people tend to move to towns on bodies of water.) The small towns I’m familiar with have one chain grocery and a Walmart. (Full disclosure: my current small town strip mall has a Home Goods. That’s my Happy Place in this town.) Zo they present going-home-again as idyllic, when it’s more likely to be grim, much in the way romances used to portray abuse as passion.

      1. Not meaning to cause trouble… I currently live in a 4,000 or so bedroom community town. At the main intersection downtown, we have an ice cream store and across the street, a bakery known for its pie. The owner of the pie shop has won national awards. Also, no Walmart. However we do have a major chain grocery store on the east side of town. We’re also close to larger cities where there is a Walmart & decent Thai (now).

        So, someone could use my town as a setting…

        1. I have more to say about the whole small town thing, but I do have to say that in a lot of small towns, people build their fields of dreams. My hometown is only 4,000 (although it’s a county seat, so people drive in three hours for groceries — maybe at least 10,000 people come into town on a semi-regular basis). It’s got Chinese that’s not too bad, a fitness center, a McDonalds and a Subway and it used to have an ice cream parlor (they may have it again; it tends to open and close as if some sort of Pratchett Ice Cream Particle flies through town every three years and hits somebody who thinks, why, we oughta have an ice cream shop, like in the old days). Oh, and a micro brewery, which sells its product in town and also in the Big City (of about 30,000 that’s an hour and a half away).

          The town has a long history of quirks. There’s this cross on a hill just outside of town. Somebody had a vision, and the version *I* heard was that everyone who gathered at the cross would be saved from the nuclear holocaust by aliens.

          The last time I was there was during the Obama administration, and some of the ladies who came up to say hi had some really appalling political ideas fly out of their mouths (during a quick hi! I don’t know what the woman would have said if she’d been invited to dinner). But on the other hand, there was a craft fair, a farmer’s market, a cute little souvenir shop, and I believe a brass band plays once a week or once a month in the park. Oh, and there’s a four-room college. It takes all sorts to make a village, I guess. (Or second-class city, as the case may be.)

      2. I read pretty much all the posts, I’m just trying not to get “spoiled” for the Nita and the Devil story. Also, it’s probably not safe to let me loose on unfinished fiction; I doubt the girls in the basement function well when there’s the literature equivalent of a psychoanalyst around 🙂

        1. One of the many reasons I try to avoid academic critiques of my finished work, even though I’m fascinated by it. One of you is going to solve the question of why I write, and then it’s all over (g).

  4. I think it’s definitely an idealization of small town life, based more on “good old days” nostalgia and the desire for intimacy and familiarity and a slower pace (which hundreds of movies and books have told us can’t be found in the cold impersonal Urban Jungle(TM), modern reality notwithstanding). Even if you know your reality wouldn’t work that way, it’s lovely to imagine it would, just like I love to imagine flying on a dragon. (Speaking as someone who technically still lives in the small town she grew up in but mostly lives her life in the much larger town nearby.)

    I’m not so sure about the “show ’em how cool you are now” reason, though. I’m sure that’s a part of it, especially the desire to be recognized as Worthy, but when I think of stories with that trope (Sweet Home Alabama keeps coming to mind), even if they start out thinking they’re cooler now, successful and beautiful and whatever, coming home always makes them realize they’re still missing something important– or they’re coming home BECAUSE they realized they’re still missing something. It’s more of a “this time I’ll get it right,” this combination of familiarity and a fresh start at the same time.

  5. Starting with the basics, there are only two main initiators to a dynamic plot — someone comes to town or someone leaves town. On a meta level this accounts for almost everything in fiction. (Note the “almost, as there are statistical outlyers that shouldn’t be counted) Romance is often nesting fiction, someone looking for someone to make their life easier. (Well, I seem to attract partners that make my life harder, but again, see the above partenthetical statement) And when someone dreams of a comfortable and cozy life we as a culture seem to think small towns with no choice in food delivery options and where the gossip mill is far faster than their net feed are cozy and relaxed.
    And then there’s the “New Place, New Life” pseudo-archetype.
    Now, how about a romance where the couple lives on a suburban street (or two of them in the same or different neighborhoods) and they meet at the art museum, a specialty grocery store, or a maker space. The story could deal with the differences in SES and home neighborhood and how they juggle their social and economic responsibilities to make the relationship work. That’s something I might read.

    1. I don’t agree with the ‘somebody comes to town, somebody leaves” shorthand because I think it ducks the deeper meaning behind story starts: something changes. The protagonist’s life is stable before the book starts, and then something happens and it’s not stable anymore; the story is the instability. So definitely “somebody comes to town” can b the de-stabilizing factor, or the protagonist leaving a stable situtation to move to a new town, but I think the idea that it’s one of the other isn’t true. What you need is a catalyst. Crazy For You, for example, has nobody coming to town or leaving. Same with Fast Women. What the Lady Wants. Those are all stories about people who have always lived in the same town.

      1. Well, “Someone comes to town, someone leaves town” is a metaphor — Either an individual changes or experiences something that makes him or her want or need to change, or some outside force or entity brings change to the main character. Anything else isn’t a story, it’s a vignette, and though there are some very effective vignettes (especially in competence porn) it’s not a story in the character driven sense.

        1. A lot of people take it as literal. Creative writing teacher here: Can’t tell you how many times I’ve told students that they don’t have to follow that. Stable world to unstable world is the story start.
          And even then it can still be a character sketch. To make it a story, you usually need an antagonist, which gives you external conflict, which . . .

          I’d go on, but Argh has heard this all before.

  6. The small town trope seems to be largely ignored in science fiction and other action based fiction. You don’t look to small towns for physical action and feats of daring-do.

      1. I like this. But, isn’t Stranger Things more about fantasy than sci-fi? Fantasy, at least a certain subset, LOVES small towns. Weird stuff happens in small towns.

    1. There’s SF set on generation ships and asteroid colonies and habs and so forth, sometimes very ‘small town’. Plenty of derring do possible, though I always like the ones in which the locals loathe derring-do, because the winning survival strategy is to plan so well that nothing is ever an utter surprise.

      (And then the alien comes to town…)

      1. That’s part of what I liked so much about Star Trek: DS9. It wasn’t so much about every week a new scenario. They were stuck in the same place, on a space station, with the same people, and every action had knock-on effects that they would have to deal with in future episodes.

  7. There are two types of stories for me, and they attract me for different reasons.

    1) The idyllic/utopian small town story – I like these stories when my personal world is in turmoil. When my daughter was sick, it was the only type of story I could bring myself to read. Talk about needing an escape!

    2) The painful return to a small town – I like these ONLY if it’s about personal growth. If the person has grown, or the visit leads to growth. I read a recent one where the person was successful financially, but she still behaved like a teenager. I didn’t even finish the book.

  8. Bet Me and Faking It felt more … spacious? to me – both felt more like life in my (and I assume any other) small city, with choices in supermarkets and (with populations over 10,000) the likelihood you don’t know everyone in the bar, at the farmer’s market, or across town. (I assumed Faking It took place in my town, at least at first!)

    I’ve lived in tiny towns that expand over the summer (Woods Hole, MA that is over-run with scientists and another town on Cape Cod that was over-run with tourists) and lived for the last 30-odd years in University towns, where the population swells with infants every fall, and they never get older, and they never get smarter, but they surely keep things lively. Populations in flux have more room for novelty, and expansion of norms.

      1. Exactly. The social pressure is gone unless the neighborhood becomes the community and steps in for the small town.

    1. Bet Me was set in an analogue to Cincinnati, and Faking It was set in Columbus, both in Ohio. Columbus is a college town, but both Fast Women and Faking It were set in the German Village neighborhood which has an idyllic small town feel, but with all the good stuff of a state capitol and state university. Actually Columbus has a plethora of colleges and universitites; you can’t throw a rock without hitting a student or a professor. I’ll never move back to Ohio, my family is now here in NJ, but if I were going to, I’d go back to Columbus. It’s a great, great town.

      So yep,they were more spacious. I lost the trapped feeling that can help tighten a plot, but I gained a much wider setting. Really depends on the story which one I need. Nita and Liz need the small town setting; Zo is better in the city.

  9. I think it sort of gets at the essence of growth.

    Children get socialized into the family and then into the wider social world when they get restricted with rules imposed by other people — parents, relatives, teachers, peers, rulebooks, whatever.

    You don’t have much choice as you grow up by other people’s rules, and it hurts to be controlled or kept from fulfilling your own strong desires and impulses.

    We only escape by learning the rules, and internalizing the rules, until they turn into the constraints on our own behavior that we impose on ourselves.

    And then we move on to a new place, where we use all the internalized rules and constraints to help us get by while we learn the new rules.

    I don’t really know why or how we end up staying someplace where we can manage the balance between our needs and the rules — maybe we don’t, always. But I know that going back to any previous stage where we used to find the rules restrictive can be oddly comforting, because we still feel like we know how things work there. And I think we gain some insights into how we’ve changed, or grown, or at least gotten a better perspective on where we’ve been and where we want to be.

    And that’s good plotting, and it makes for some useful drama.

    1. Definitely going back gives you perspective. I think whether you find it comforting or not depends on how comfortable you were there before.

  10. I like jinx’s comment on rules and constraints. It can be *very* comforting to put yourself in a position where you know exactly what is expected of you. It restricts your choices, which means you have fewer decisions, and thus less thinking to do.

    Of course that comfort is also a straitjacket, and IMO the only reason to go back to it,
    once having escaped, is because you have dug yourself into such a deep hole that you need help to crawl out, and feel like the best help you’ll find is Back Home.

    What I think many “return to small town” plots don’t fully address (and granted most of these are short books, so they can’t address EVERYTHING) is that many of the people in these town will either NOT help a returning prodigal – because they left! they are no longer One Of Us! – or will help with so much condescension (typically delivered with ersatz sympathy e.g. “bless your heart”) that every extended hand stings like acid.

    As you might guess, I also grew up in a small town, and GTFO as soon as I reasonably could, and never want to go back. There is a person still living there who is very precious to me and who is getting very old. I want to see her again, but the rest of the town can burn.

    1. I think that belonging aspect is important. My family goes back generations in my hometown, but I never belonged there. I was always the weird one. Neil Armstrong grew up in my hometown, and when he got back from space, they threw a big parade for him. I remember my mother saying that all the bigwigs in town who were fawning all over him were the same guys that made fun of him in high school because he spent all his time out at the little airfield. She said he was quiet but really nice and they were jerks, but once he became world famous . . . . Yep, never going back there.

  11. I generally dislike the going home trope but if the story is well written, I read it, if the first chapter grabs me at the library.

    I think that since so many people have been forced to move away, even if they don’t want to, it is a nostalgia read.

    As some of those written towns are ideal places, it helps people to feel a sense of tying up of their own loose ends, especially if their own home towns weren’t quaint, happy places.

    For people in big cities, it is the escape. After all, when you go away for a weekend, you pick a small beach town or mountain town that swells in tourist numbers only.

    I’ve seen a few UK ‘Escape to the Country’ episodes where people look for new homes in places they visited on weekends and holidays. In many cases, they’re retiring and selling the old house. Hence the going home to small town focus.

    I’ve never moved from my home suburb and the familiarity doesn’t breed contempt so much as a wariness. I don’t want to be stopped by someone and chatted at for 7 minutes when I have nothing much to to learn or contribute. I try not to be in a mall at 2pm on a Saturday because it’s likely I will run into someone and have to talk small. I’m not unfriendly at all, I just can’t do the emotional work these days. With school, I’m still good friends with my old high school group of guys and gals so I’m not bothered to see other high school people.

    I find that I’m put off the going back home to the ranch stories. Nora Roberts put in everything in Montana Sky and there’s not much I want to read as it is more ‘fish out of water’ in many books. I might still read a book like Jayne Ann Krentz’s Eclipse Bay series. I know I will DEFINITELY read Alisha Rai’s second Forbidden Hearts book, as it is Olivia’s brother going back home to the small town.

    I suppose absence makes the heart grow fonder. If you equate a small town with happiness, either from own childhood out from movies and books, then difficult times might send you looking for that in books.

  12. I grew up in a smallish town that has increased in size greatly over my lifetime, but still has some small-town aspects for me. I can generally do a 6-degrees-of exercise in no time at all with any but the newest residents. When I left for college and grad school, I didn’t expect to end up back here, but things happened and here I am, raising my own kids. But when I came back, because I have a large family here, I made a conscious effort to establish my own identity apart from my family connections. That was my goal. It took time, but I got there. And while I moved back for a job and due to family events, I’ve made this my home in a whole new way.

    I’m writing a series that takes place in a fictional small town about 3 hours from where I live, nesting it near two other real small towns with which I’m familiar. Each has its own character, but they are also located in a heavy outdoor sports and recreation area that relies on tourism, especially in the summer. The population explodes then, and lots of new people wander through. Oil services and commercial fishing are also prominent in the area economy. In Alaska, a 3-hour drive is nothing, so going from a small town on the road system (as opposed to the Bush) to Anchorage happens all the time, even if just for the day.

    So this setting is pretty flexible, and I’m not aiming for cutesy gingerbread small town stuff. I don’t have much stomach for something so saccharine. And if I’m going to write stories set in Alaska, unless I use Anchorage (pop. 300,000), it’s all small towns. The next two largest cities, Fairbanks and Juneau, have populations around 33,000.

    I did get a taste of the traditional small town dynamic when I lived in Juneau. I got to town on a Thursday, started my new job on Friday (1st of the month, when such a thing mattered for payroll purposes), and went to a ski swap event on Saturday. No fewer than 20 people came up to me to say hello and already knew my name. It blew my little mind! I didn’t last long in that place–too claustrophobic for my rebellious self at the time. But it was an eye-opener, for sure.

    Just my observations. Your mileage may vary greatly.

  13. I was recovering from surgery recently and spent about a month watching Hallmark Christmas movies. The overriding premise seemed to be that people from cities were all heartless greedy creeps who didn’t like dogs or children, and that to be truly happy a person had to give up whatever successful career they had in the big city and move to a small town and do something involving crafts, cooking, baking, or running a B&B.

    1. Don’t forget the magic snow globe!

      I saw 5 or more of those movies at Christmas. My dad seems to be addicted to the channel.

  14. I think it’s cyclic. Remember when vampires were the hot genre? Hopefully we’ll get past the small-town-old-boyfriend thing soon – it’s tiring. What I don’t understand is why everyone in a small town suddenly falls in love in a ten-book time frame. They’ve been single, and most of them happily so, until someone moves back to town and hooks up with an old flame, and now everyone has to fall in love? Just doesn’t ring true.

    The best small town books are the ones where everyone is judging one another (behind their backs, of course) and making snarky comments about how people look and act. THAT is true life shining through.

      1. I’m wondering if it’s because the world is big and scary and out of control and the idea of returning to small, supposedly simpler, and known is attractive.

        Not my idea of an interesting trope, but to each their own.

        Or maybe its that our collective sense of community has been erroding over time and that small towns do have community (sometimes too much of it).

        My father and his wife have recently moved to a suburb of Melbourne that is far enough out that the town operates like a small town. He was commenting that he keeps on getting stopped on the street for a chat, when all he really wants to do is go to the hardware store, buy what he needs and get home to finish the job he’s doing.

        Maybe for some, the thought of that is very attractive.

  15. The only small town book that I really like that comes to mind is Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. Most of her books have a small town, coming home feel, but it is a college town or has tourist attractions. Not so small.

    I don’t like return to small town stories. For the most part they lack the element of choice for the protagonist. Her life has fallen apart so she comes home and finds out that it is just what she needs. Irritating I calls it. It smacks of failure in a way that I don’t like.

    Linda Howard has a book where a single mom moves to a small town because the pace is slower for raising her children and the cost of living is more reasonable. I don’t mind that. But the continuous numbers of adult women fleeing to the boonies with their tails between their legs has left a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe it speaks of my innermost fears…

    1. Yes there is a whole sub group of books where heroine fails, goes home and builds a new life. I do not get the appeal.

      1. I don’t think i would mind, except there is always this strong element of giving up. I realize that personal growth is the point, but seriously there have to be some pretty extenuating circumstances for just throwing in the towel.

        1. But I do think that coming home with purpose is good. Nora Roberts has some of those and I enjoy them. I will have to think about why.

  16. I don’t write, so don’t know from the author’s prospective, and the place I grew up is no longer the place it was when I was growing up in it (she said, confusingly) so it doesn’t resonate personally at all.

    That said, why this trope might appeal to me as a reader is I think some of us feel we could have done a better job being a successful teenager if we knew then what we know now, and have a secret hankering to go back and do a better job. Conversely, it could be “face the heroine with her worst nightmare” as mentioned above.

    I am just realizing that I have generally been disappointed by books based on the “going back home” theme. I can’t really put my finger on why, except the vaguely that it seems like I don’t buy what aspects the heroine feels challenged by. I read a sample and say “nope” and move on.

  17. I enjoy some small town romance stories. Maybe we write/read them for the sense of connectedness. That feeling that you matter and that there are people who really care, even if some are gossipy.
    City life for a single female can often be lonely, and a bit cold. Commute, work, commute, TV, sleep, do it all again the next day. If you have strong friends and family in the city, or a significant other, it can be warm, but in my experience with living in new cities, it often takes a long time to connect.
    Writing a story set in a small town can be great for quirky secondary characters.

  18. I’m a NYC gal but because of my husband’s job, I ended up moving to a small town in upstate and… I liked it. Maybe loved it. Didn’t see that coming. While it wasn’t crime free and job prospects were limited, it was a nice place to raise my youngest. I moved but he stayed and got married. I think these type books are a comfort read. I think of them as the wizard of Oz no place like home trope: travel the world but everything you need is where you left it.

    1. Yes, I wondered if it was less to do with the small town itself and more to do with the coming home idea. My small town never felt like home – I left right after high school and the only reason I ever went back was to see my family (who have since almost all left, thank the stars). That said, nowhere else I have lived since then has felt like home either. I don’t need to feel like I’m home, here to stay forever, but I know a lot of other people do. And in theory, if you already have roots somewhere it would be easier to find that feeling. So I wondered if it’s more about that idea of finding home than anything else?

  19. From a writing perspective, I would think that it gives writers a chance to explain their world in a…. natural, descriptive way. Not lazy, exactly, but the person returning says “over there was the same old bank but the store on the corner was new” – which no one says/ thinks about the place they currently live.
    I can see the appeal of that, I guess. Not sure why it’s a popular subgenre. I don’t hate all of those books but don’t gravitate towards them either.

  20. You got me. I grew up in a small town in Brooklyn, NY. Yeah, but our neighborhood WAS actually like a small town.

    Going back to look at it and the major changes that happened is eye opening. It is SO small now.

  21. It’s less about the appeal of a small town as a contrast against a supposed falseness of the urban life.
    The two visual media touchstones of the genre, for me, are Sweet Home Alabama (of course) and the Hannah Montana Movie.

    The core character theme is that the protagonist has hidden away their true self for the sake of succeeding in the big city. They’ve become cold-hearted, they lie to themselves about what they want, and they push away things that they desire for the sake of upholding a city-slicker image.
    So being forced to return home confronts the parts of them that they can no longer deny, creates an opportunity for self-actualization where they can come to terms with uglier/embarrassing parts of them, that they much learn to accept in order to live happily.

    And then on the aesthetics side, the genre believes that city-living is about chasing pop culture trends for the shiny, and returning home awakens the protagonist’s sense of authenticity so they can stick it to the whoever Popular Person in their life in the denouement that they actually like the thing Popular Person derided earlier in the story.

    There’s a class aspect to this, because you can have “new money self-made person is forced to return to their inner city hometown” variant on the trope. So it’s not exactly about small towns, really, as it is more about showing that the current supposed most-desired lifestyle (of those who have “made it”) is an illusion.

    1. I really loathed Sweet Home Alabama. (Haven’t seen the Hannah Montana movies.) This may be more about me than the trope (g).

      1. I hated it too. The ex husband is a ripoff of Matthew McConaghey and is a terrible guy and I didn’t want them back together and he’s an immature ass and there is nothing wrong with Patrick Dempsey’s character except for his mother. Bad romance, indeed.

        The soundtrack is good, but that’s about it.

        If you’re going to do a plot like this, you need to sell me on why we should be going for Guy A and why we should not be going for Guy B. That movie fails on both counts.

  22. Huh, I was thinking I loved small town life as a child/teen. At least when I was yanked out of the small town all I wanted was to go back. (I had a lot of back and forth for a while.)

    But now, I think what I really like is living in the country. The small town is just the place I work and get gas. I love some of the people. I love the crazy stories and the quirks, I loved that when my kids were small no one was going to run off with them. The entire town was watching.

    I’m 15 minutes out of “town” now and I’d never leave home if I didn’t have to make a living. And by town, I mean the 500 that actually live in the village (when law school is in session) and the 4500 of us that live in the surrounding area.

    For me, the small town thing is about leaving the stress of the city. But I find cities confusing, and over stimulating. Also scary. I’m a hermit at heart – as long as I have my friends.

    Bree MacGowan (my small town protagonist) isn’t leaving or coming back. But she does end up in a relationship who comes from somewhere else. But he doesn’t move to her town. He’s working there temporarily. The great thing about writing small town mystery is that everyone is up in everyone else’s business. Everyone has an opinion – often wrong. It makes conversations kind of fun.

    Aaaand, now I’ve gotten totally off subject. Nothing new there!

    1. I used to rent a place short term in Greenwich Village. I could live there easily, it was wonderful. I think it depends where in the city and what city. As I said, German Village in Columbus was wonderful, too.

  23. I don’t know about the returning to small town thing, other than maybe it has to do with getting back to what is truly important (family, love, etc., rather than earning money at a huge career in a big city…we should all be so lucky).

    I do know I like books set in quirky small towns full of quirky individuals. (In mysteries, the Donna Andrews books, romance maybe Susan Wiggs and Susan Mallery.) There’s a comfort factor there. Belonging. People who know you and care about you. (Even if that means everyone also knows your business.)

    Just my thoughts. Mind you, I left the suburbs (ugh) and lived in a series of small towns in the area where I still reside. I like the fact that when I walk down the street, I see faces I recognize.

    Also, nothing to do with this discussion, exactly, but I lost my second cat in 9 days today (Mystic, the brother of my sweet girl Magic). One of the artists who is part of the artisans’ cooperative shop I run stopped in and found someone working beside me on a day when I would normally be there. She knew Mystic was getting close to the end, and apparently said to Larry, the artist who had subbed for me, “Oh no, is today the day?” and then stopped off at my house on her way home to give me a hug and let me talk for an hour.

    That’s why small towns.

    1. Oh, honey, I’m sorry. Think of them together again, maybe?
      I still miss Lyle like crazy. Every now and then, I look at Milton and say, “You can never die.”
      He seems unimpressed. Then I tell that to Mona and Veronica, too. We’re in this together, NOBODY LEAVES BEFORE I DO.

      1. I kept telling Magic that after I lost Samhain, and then Minerva, Magic and Mystic’s mother. Because I knew I couldn’t live without them. But as usual, she didn’t listen to me. Cats.

        But yes, together, and reunited with their mother, which is something.

    2. Oh my. Sorry, Deborah. Hugs, too. I can totally relate on the cat family. One year I lost a grandmom cat and grandkitty close together. So tough. At the time, we lived in a small community and the 1st cat to go was also the first time I had to do the letting go thing with the vet. Afterwards, I totally regretted it and called the vet crying (not sure what I expected her to do but mostly looking for reassurance on the decision). Within the hour, the vet was back at my door, literature in hand and hugs at the ready. She stayed with me at least an hour until I felt better. So I second the small community thing. Sometimes the lovely cliché towns in movies really do exist:)

    3. Oh, my dear. Oh, my dear. Felt like I knew those cats. So sorry for you, and sending all the condolences. How are the others doing?

  24. I seem to read a lot of the return to the small home town where the heroine (it’s almost always the heroine) was misjudged in her original tenure. She goes back and people definitely remember, but over the course of the story, her sterling qualities win the day. Either she was wronged in the past or they see how much better she is now. So I wonder if part of the catnap is the identification (for the reader) with winning over all the injustice of how we were misunderstood in our younger years. We readers get to experience the angst of the painful judgement, the righteous self-recognition of our TRUE worth, and the reward of not only a lover but an entire community finally recognizing it. The pleasure of some groveling on the part of those who did her wrong is a nice perk.

    I think the lure of a community where everyone knows you and life is simpler (agree that’s a fantasy) is in there as well. It’s like the urge to declutter: I think we feel oppressed by how much noise there is in our lives. A small town is less clutter.

  25. Is it that we’re feeling adrift and insecure (politics, Brexit, the disengagement from real people in the flesh that is a side effect of the social media age), and so going back to a small town puts people in an illusory safe space? Especially given the bulk of the population did not in fact grow up in a small town, and so doesn’t appreciate the potential fall-out of popping to the supermarket for milk in your ‘only suitable for lazing on the couch’ pants and unwashed hair.

    Or maybe it’s another side effect of social media – the ability to look up what old flames are doing, and think ‘what if…’

    1. I think that has to have something to do with it.
      Plus small towns always seem manageable. Smaller population, fewer streets, etc.

      I think a lot of my puzzlement about it is that I’m a hermit. I’m the original little old lady who only drives her car once a week to church, except in my case it’s the grocery. I love being alone, which may be a factor of the people I’ve lived with in the past. It’s so peaceful.

  26. One day, my mother is going to be gone from my hometown, and I won’t have any excuse to visit it. The thought makes me sad, and I’m not quite sure why — I didn’t live any sort of idyllic life there. I was at the bottom of the social order, and I was ready to go far, far away as soon as I could.

    But when I go home, there’s something there. Maybe the sky. Maybe the land. Maybe the totally great thunderstorms!

    Before I wrote my comment upthread, I thought, “That may be so, but there’s no WAY I could set a book there. Ugh. Willa Cather pulled it off pretty well, but I’m no Willa Cather.”

    But . . . after writing the comment, I think it could be an interesting setting after all. So many characters, and so much drama and conflict. (-: Plus, a lot of people with some pretty odd theories. What if their reality is the real one?

    This is a completely different issue from the “coming home and becoming a great success at small town life”, though. I suppose if someone is stuck in a shitty city apartment, drudging along in a shitty entry-level job, it would be VERY attractive to go full-Etsy and write a novel/screenplay about going home and living well.

    A lot of GTFO of town people never want to look back (I don’t, until threads like this pop up). But . . . a lot of GTFO of town people are actually big deals in town. They’ve got ambition. They’ve got pride. They’ve got smarts. Cheerleaders and student council presidents who are told they should get out and do something big because they have so much talent.

    So they go.

    And then they may start to think how much nicer it would be to be a big fish in a small pond, instead of a minnow in the big city.

    I don’t think this is a terrible idea — they bring back new ideas and ways of doing things to their small towns, and sometimes they set up some wonderful things because they missed them from their “finishing experience” in the big city. A lot of them do two jobs — one for money, and one for love. Work as a mechanic during the week, then run the local movie theater on the weekends, for example.

    But the basic thing is that there’s this narrative that they’ve failed at big city living. IN FICTION, coming home is not exactly a triumph — they have to overcome their shame by showing the small town how much value they can bring to the community.

    I don’t know. I kind of fell into things as a young adult, and when I was a teenager, I NEVER would have dreamt that I’d marry a farmer and live 30 minutes from town. I was going to be based in New York, and live the exciting life of a foreign correspondent! LOL. Well . . . I guess I’m corresponding with Argh Nation, so that part is true. Not really what I had in mind, of course, but I’m not sure I’ve got regrets. Just a to-do list.

  27. I offer a tangential bit that ties to things that Briana and Mikki have said.

    As a reader, I like to know exactly where I am in the space of the story’s world. Small towns, like single places (the murder mystery in the hotel) are much easier for writers to describe precisely. Of course, good writers can expand their universes infinitely, always keeping my feet on their ground, and I’m happy. But that’s difficult to do.

    As a would-be writer, I have to know the setting thoroughly. I wrote a couple of stories about a fictional Massachusetts town. One day my husband phoned from me saying that he’d found my town and the perfect house for us. We’ve lived here for nearly 3 years and sometimes he confuses the names of the fictional town with the real town. I love living here. However, I see no similarity with the town I imagined in the stories.

    So, I’m saying that I agree with Jenny that change is the catalyst for a story. For me, the small town trope is (along with everything else you guys have said) a convenience for the writer to bring her readers along with her.

    1. I think the key to large settings is to create the small community within it. The people in an apartment building, in a workplace, in a social group that hangs out in the same place, etc.

  28. I live in a small town where a number of the Oz books were written, although not the famous one. Still. Every resident living here over a year knows the location of the Yellow Brick Road house. We have two large Navy bases – ships and planes and helos – to either side, and the SEALs teams train here. A famed hotel is a tourist draw, both for stay-a-weekers and day-trippers. What interests me is how many subsets we have among residents in this town, depending on where your neighborhood is and your interests. We have the Starbucks (one) group, and the Cafe 1134. We have the bay folks, golf course folks (two), and beach folks. Folks who shop in the supermarket, folks who patronize the organic market. Best gossip is picked up in the town’s two thrift stores. Do groups intermingle? Yes. But I don’t know golf course folks or stand-up paddleboarders or the owners of local restos. I love living here, but we’re not that coherent a town. Everyone (one high school) returns for the All Hands Fourth of July reunion dance, which provides years of gossip. If someone permanently returns, rememberance of back in the day happens; after that you’re lost to your own subgroup. Until the next Fourth of July dance.

  29. I lived in one of the most amazing small towns when I was a kid…Tokyo. No, seriously. Neighborhoods within mega cities might as well be small towns. I left when I was nine and came back to visit when I graduated from college, and when a longtime storekeeper saw me in passing, rushed to the phone to ask my aunt if her niece from America was visiting. That’s a small town!

    1. Yeah, North Portland in Oregon used to feel like a small town, especially once you wittled it down further to Catholic North Portland. While the influx of new people has driven up housing cost, it has definitely made it easier to find a date who doesn’t know anyone from your family yet.

  30. For me some of it is that many authors write cities in a way that are either a) very bland or b) ring very false, because I’ve lived in cities my whole life. I really, really love when the setting is a specific, tangible part of the story. And while intellectually I know the small town fantasy is a total misrepresentation, it’s not a misrepresentation of what I know, so I can still relax and enjoy the story. I will say I’m picky in my small towns – Hallmark and Virgin River, not so much. Victoria Dahl books and the Decoy Bride movie, yes.

  31. It seems to me that the usual characters in these books are mid twenties to mid thirties? So, I’m wondering how realistic the characters are as millenials or whatever. My kids are 26 and 30. I raised them on a llama farm in the south, near a small rural town, which is about 30 minutes to a good sized city. They both got out of there as fast as they could after high school. So did their friends. It was a totally dead end town. The only cool place was an outdoor gear store for hiking and bouldering, camping and kayaking, and mountain bikes. The town is at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Miuntains.

    Since they left the town has completely changed. A rail to trail finished connecting it to the city, and it is totally unrecognizable. Brewery, moonshine distillery, coffee shops and roasters, boutiques, yoga, bee keeping store, organic grocers, bike stores. Totally cool. Craft shows and classes and galleries and studios. And full of mid twenties to mid thirties- from somewhere else. Most with tattoos from wrist to shoulder. And piercings, and hipster with beards and flannel and denim and tie dye and man-buns. Lots of girls with purple hair. Bless their heart. 😉

    So, now it would be cool to come back. They probably never run in to anyone they knew before. But, I feel like the characters in the novels about “coming back home” are unrealistic compared to real millennials, and more like a version of what a more mature writer would like them to be. Am I being too critical?

    1. I think it depends on the millennial.

      If what I’d wanted was to get married and raise kids in a safe space surrounded by family would help me raise them, staying in my home town would have made sense. If I hadn’t been one of two Democrats in the whole damn town, it might have made sense. If what I wanted to do with my life would have been possible in a town of five thousand, it might have made sense.

      I think moving out of small towns has a lot to do economics; if you can’t make a living doing what you want to or are trained to do where you are living, you have to move. And the easiest time to move is after high school or college when you don’t have a lot of unbreakable ties to the place.


Comments are closed.