Anyone who’s ever lived in a small town – in any geography in this great big world of ours – can tell you that they have a unique vibe. There’s a strange collective psychology that takes over us when everyone knows everyone, when there’s nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. Some novels manage to capture this perfectly – some literally, some metaphorically – and so I decided to put together a list of the best. Here are seventeen books set in small towns that will transport you right back there.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
One of the most popular books set in small towns in recent years is The Vanishing Half. This historical fiction novel examines the lives of twin girls who grew up together in a small Southern community; one grew up to “pass” as white, the other married a dark-skinned man and had a dark-skinned daughter. Through this multi-generational family saga, Bennett plays out the domino effect of reductive labels. It’s as complex as the issues it tackles: colorism, the divisions within small communities, trauma, gender, and family. The small town backdrop plays a central role, driving the characters’ decision-making and informing their worldview. Read my full review of The Vanishing Half here.
How To Find Love In A Bookshop by Veronica Henry
Books set in small towns that also feature quaint bookshops with kooky clientele: could there be any better combination? Bibliophiles love to read about their own kind, after all. How To Find Love In A Bookshop follows Emilia Nightingale’s fight to keep her late father’s bookshop out of the hand of developers, while her village customers look for love and the life they want to live. It’s a delightful story with the coziest possible vibes, plus the dialogue (being written by a former screenwriter) is sharp and sweet.
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
Ah, but not all books set in small towns are snuggly and saccharine. The proof is in The Lottery, a short story by the queen of unsettling horror, Shirley Jackson. Those of you who read this short story in high school are still traumatised – why teachers keep assigning it to impressionable kids, I’ll never know – but those of you who missed that particular rite of passage are in for a treat. A fictional small town in Anywhere America has a strange local tradition, an annual lottery where a member of the community takes responsibility for the coming year’s harvest. Yes, that’s ominous. Plenty of Jackson’s other equally-haunting stories take place in small towns, too. Read my full review of The Lottery And Other Stories here.
Remember Me by Charity Norman
Remember Me is a family drama wrapped around a crime mystery, set in a small town. Twenty-five years ago, a young woman vanished. She was never found, and her disappearance left a gaping hole in her small community. Emily Kirkland has built a life for herself as a children’s book illustrator in London, far away from the rural town in Aotearoa New Zealand where she was raised. She’s called home by a concerned neighbour: her father is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, and he can no longer safely care for himself. Through the mists of her father’s failing memory, Emily gets glimpses of the past, and what might have happened to Leah Patara. But does she really want to know? Read my full review of Remember Me here.
Big Lies In A Small Town by Diane Chamberlain
Big Lies In A Small Town is fictional, but the small town of Edenton and the themes Chamberlain explores – race, privilege, and opportunity – are very real. The story centers around a Depression-era mural: the woman commissioned to paint it (who disappeared under mysterious circumstances), and the woman charged with restoring it for installation, nearly eight decades later. Rumours and old grievances colour everyone’s perspective on what might have happened all those years ago, and what should be done about it now. Read my full review of Big Lies In A Small Town here.
The Librarian by Salley Vickers
Travel back to 1950s rural England in The Librarian, a historical fiction novel by Salley Vickers. The story starts off sweet enough for Sylvia Blackwell, when she takes a position as a Children’s Librarian in the quaint town of East Mole. The library is on the decline, but the town is pleasant – or so it seems. When Sylvia falls in love with a married man, she invites the ire of the scandal-loving locals. But it’s her closeness with his daughter and the son of her neighbour that is going to pose a threat to the life she has built for herself in the small town.
Well Met by Jen DeLuca
As far as books set in small towns go, Well Met has a unique twist. Emily moves to Willow Creek to help her sister recuperate from an injury, and she knew things would be different for her in the small Maryland village. What she didn’t count on was getting roped into volunteering for the nearby Renaissance Faire, and forced into near constant contact with the infuriating local schoolteacher. What she thought would be a quick stop for the summer in a regional community suddenly starts looking like a whole new life – if she decides she wants it. Read my full review of Well Met here.
Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills
Dyschronia is one of the cleverest books set in small towns – and not just because it’s a unique subversion of the cli-fi dystopia, where the ocean recedes rather than rises. What made it stand out for me is the narrative point of view. Mills uses the “collective first person”, a throw-back to the days of Greek chorus storytelling. The residents of Clapstone think and act and speak as one, an interdependent entity. “We had dreams for Clapstone,” they say, “why didn’t Sam tell us?”. It’s a brilliant way to emphasise the tribal mindset of small towns, particularly after the onset of disaster, and it makes for a truly eerie read. Read my full review of Dyschronia here.
Lanny by Max Porter
I’m just gonna say it: Max Porter writes weird books. Whether he’s writing tragicomic prose poems about grief, or reimagining the last days of a painter’s life, he’s always got something a bit kooky going on. Lanny is no exception. What could have been a simple story about a young boy from a going missing turns into… well, one of those highly-literary Experimental Novels that make you feel like you’ve just dropped far too much acid to understand. It’s compulsively readable, and even the dullest among us will be able to pick up what Porter is putting down. Pick this one up when you what a book set in a small town that will really make you think. Read my full review of Lanny here.
Under The Dome by Stephen King
Stephen King is famous for setting the vast (vast!) majority of his novels and short stories in Maine – but have you ever noticed how many of his books are set in small towns, too? It’s most obvious in Under The Dome, where the whole conceit revolves around a small town being cut off from the rest of the world by a giant near-impenetrable glass dome. As you can imagine, it throws everyone – under the dome, and outside of it – into a bit of a tizz. And, as with any crisis situation, there are some who stand to benefit from the panic that ensues, and an unlikely hero is called up to save the day. Read my full review of Under The Dome here.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
There are plenty of classic books set in small towns, but one of the stand-outs is Middlemarch – if only because George Eliot actually wrote with the intention of studying provincial life. It doesn’t so much have a “plot” as it does a series of interweaving and interconnected stories about various residents of the fictional town for which it takes its name. The main players are Dorothea Brooke (who loves cottages and is disillusioned by her marriage to an older dude), Tertius Lydgate (a doctor with crazy ideas about how medicine should be a science), Fred Vincy (a privileged gambler who swears he’ll grow up if Mary Garth agrees to marry him), and Nicholas Bulstrode (a banker with a sordid past). Read my full review of Middlemarch here.
You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken
You know that old saying, “you can’t choose your family”? Well, sometimes you don’t get to choose your friends, either. Katie grows up in the (fictional) small town of Glenbruff, Ireland, where she has no choice but to become friends with the glamorous troublemaker Evelyn, and the wet blanket Maeve. They dream of escaping their small town life someday, but in the meantime (as the title suggests) You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here. When Pamela – the “city girl” – moves to Glenbruff, the natural order of things is disrupted and this coming-of-age novel takes a dark turn… Read my full review of You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here here.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix
It’s no secret that women – especially mothers – run small towns, and Grady Hendrix absolutely nails it in The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires. Yes, there are vampires running around and it’s all very spooky, but this is one of the most realistic books set in small towns you’ll read yet. A group of suburban women meet to bond over their love of true crime and pulp fiction, and inevitably their bookish conversation turns to neighbourhood gossip. When a mysterious handsome stranger shows up in their suburban community, their spidey senses tingle – especially when he won’t go out during the day. Their husbands might not believe them, but these women know something’s up.
Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman
Britt-Marie Was Here (translated into English by Henning Koch) revolves around the titular character, a middle-aged fusspot recently separated from her beloved (philandering) husband Kent. In search of a job and a life of her own, she finds herself in the small town of Borg, being as she’s the only person desperate enough to take on the role of caretaker for a soon-to-be-demolished community center. She’s drawn in to the lives and dramas of her new neighbours. Despite her firm intentions of simply keeping the community center clean (with a bucket-load of baking soda), she ends up roped into coaching a soccer team of ragamuffins, and best friends with the drunken pizzeria owner. Read my full review of Britt-Marie Was Here here.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Have you ever heard the maxim “all stories begin with either a man going on a journey, or a stranger coming to town”? Sharp Objects has both – as many books set in small towns do. Troubled journalist Camille Preaker is forced to return to her hometown chasing a story, the search for whomever has murdered one little girl and kidnapped another. She gets pushed and pulled, from pillar to post, as she tries to craft a neat story out of a very messy situation. Heading home is stressful under normal circumstances, but when you’ve got an editor breathing down your neck for copy, a mother who doesn’t want you around, two dead girls with their teeth pulled out, and a history of mental instability… yeah, you’re not going to have a good time. Read my full review of Sharp Objects here.
Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes
In a sleepy small town on the Maine coast, Evvie Drake rarely leaves her big empty house. All the neighbourhood gossips blame her grief over the death of her husband nearly a year ago for her self-isolation, and she lets them think that – even though it couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s where Evvie Drake Starts Over begins, but it’s all about to change. Professional baseballer Dean Trenney arrives to rent her granny flat, and the two of them strike a deal: she won’t ask him why he’s suddenly lost the ability to pitch, as long as he won’t ask about her dead husband. Can you see where this is going…?
The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
Let’s end on one of the long-time book club favourites of all the books set in small towns: The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society. As the Second World War ends and the world begins to open up, Juliet is looking for a new project. She begins exchanging letters with a man she’s never met, who lives on a remote island and has a fascinating story to tell. His “society” began as a hastily-constructed alibi when caught breaking curfew by German occupiers, but it grew into a tradition that held the community together. When Juliet travels to Guernsey, though, to meet the members of this society, she’s not at all prepared for what she finds.