Top Ten Novels Set in Small Towns

Reading The Suite Spot reminded me how much I like stories about small towns.  I’ve never lived in one myself, and I’ve always imagined I’d find them claustrophobic (I prefer anonymity and being left to myself). But for whatever reason, I love stories about people who move to very small towns and find a community there. I love the sense of connectedness in a small town that seems so hard to create anywhere else.

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, is to list books with a favorite theme, so here are some of my favorite books set in small towns or remote areas. I looked for books where the town was more than just a setting, but is really a plot driver and functions almost like a character. 

As I was looking at some of my favorites, a few authors rose to the top who tend to go back to small or remote towns again and again: Richard Russo, Elizabeth Strout, Kent Haruf, Jane Harper. If you like small town reads, these authors’ books are all good.

I don’t really do cute and heartwarming, so you’ll see this a darker list than you might expect – although there’s certainly a lot of emotion in these books. I didn’t include classics, though many are set in small towns (like most of the works of Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen) and I also didn’t include memoirs such as Hillbilly Elegy or Educated.

Here’s my list:

  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: A Pulitzer-prize winner, this is the first of several books set in Crosby, Maine about a retired shopkeeper who struggles to relate to her neighbors.
  • Plainsong by Kent Haruf: Set in Holt, Colorado, this is a beautiful book about a pregnant teen who is taken in by two elderly brothers.
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: Set in Edgecombe St. Mary, a village in the English countryside, this is a story about a retired major who forms a friendship with a Pakistani shopkeeper.
  • The Lost Man by Jane Harper: this mystery is set in a remote part of the Australian Outback, where being outside without water will kill you. Two brothers try to figure out how that happened to their middle brother, an experienced outdoorsman.
  • Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo: One of my favorite books and movies, Russo writes about a crusty old guy, Sully, who’s trying to keep his son on a better path than the one he took.
  • Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver: one of my earliest reads by Kingsolver and a favorite, it’s about a young woman who returns to her hometown of Grace, Arizona to confront her family and her past.
  • Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman: this is a set of interconnected stories that take place over time in one house, set on the outer reaches of Cape Cod.
  • Crow Lake by Mary Lawson: one of my all-time favorites, this is a book about an estranged brother and sister who grow up in rural Northern Ontario.
  • Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger: Set in 1961 in New Bremen, Minnesota, it’s a coming of age story about two brothers who have to deal with a murder in their small town, and what that means for his family.
  • Beach Read by Emily Henry: I wanted to highlight at least one romance, and Henry tells a great story but also avoids a lot of the cliches of the small town romance. Augustus and January are writers who live next to each other in a small beach town. They challenge each other to write in the other’s genre. Another romance I enjoyed was Well Met by Jen DeLuca, about a woman who’s staying with her sister in Willow Creek, Maryland and ends up volunteering in the local Renaissance Faire.

Those are some of my favorite small town novels. Do you have any favorites to share?

  33 comments for “Top Ten Novels Set in Small Towns

  1. March 8, 2022 at 8:06 am

    There are so many interesting books set in small towns!

    My post: https://lydiaschoch.com/top-ten-tuesday-books-with-your-favourite-theme/

    • March 8, 2022 at 6:52 pm

      Thanks Lydia, and happy Top Ten Tuesday!

  2. March 8, 2022 at 9:15 am

    I have read eight of the books on your top ten list and agree wholeheartedly. I especially liked your comment where the small town is a character itself. Such good choices!

    • March 8, 2022 at 6:52 pm

      Thanks Marci, we clearly share similar tastes! I’m glad you liked the list. I love when the place is really important to a story.

  3. March 8, 2022 at 11:31 am

    Books set in small towns are some of my favorites! I mostly read romance, so my choices would be different, but I can imagine these would be just as good.

    • March 8, 2022 at 6:51 pm

      Any good small town romances you suggest? I did like Beach Read and Well Met, but I couldn’t think of any others. You might like The Suite Spot.

      • March 8, 2022 at 8:01 pm

        I loved Brighton Walsh’s Havenbrook series.

  4. WendyW
    March 8, 2022 at 12:23 pm

    I also love books set in small towns. Great list!

  5. March 8, 2022 at 1:25 pm

    Both Olive Kitteridge and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand sound like they’d be good to pick up! 🙂

    • March 8, 2022 at 6:48 pm

      They are excellent! Major Pettigrew is a bit more feel-good, while Olive Kitteridge can be pretty dark as I remember. I definitely recommend them both.

  6. March 8, 2022 at 1:37 pm

    I love this trope! I have been meaning to read Elizabeth Strout’s Olive series, too

    • March 8, 2022 at 6:47 pm

      Thanks Rabeeah! Elizabeth Strout is fantastic, every one of her books is brilliant. I hope you enjoy it.

  7. March 8, 2022 at 3:46 pm

    I grew up in a small town where everybody knew everyone else (more or less). It was quaint and fun and beautiful. I always *think* I would like to live in a small town again, but I think I actually prefer a place that’s a BIT bigger. I don’t like huge cities, so maybe like a smaller suburb? The suburb I live in now is huge. I also love small town settings, especially when perfect-seeming towns are hiding big secrets. Great idea for a list!

    Happy TTT!

    Susan
    http://www.blogginboutbooks.com

    • March 8, 2022 at 6:46 pm

      Thanks Susan! I’m a fan of suburbs – I live in a small city in a large metropolitan area. Small enough that a candidate for mayor might come to our door (in the last election our mayor’s mother did!). But close to any kind of arts, theater or dining I might want, and very diverse. But I would like to experience small town life at some point.

  8. March 8, 2022 at 4:56 pm

    What a good topic you’ve chosen. I’ve not read any of these but they do sound interesting. I read a different Kent Haruf novel which was set in the same locale as the one you chose I believe. My husband is currently reading The Lost Man and I’m counting the number of pages he reads each day and hoping he hurries up so I can read it!

    I think I had attempted this I would have to add Colm Toibin (his books are so often set in Enniscorthy, county Wexford).

    • March 8, 2022 at 6:43 pm

      I’ve loved everything from Haruf, I imagine he’s a lot like Strout and Russo in returning to the same (or similar) towns. I hope you enjoy The Lost Man!

  9. March 9, 2022 at 3:38 am

    I lived in a very small town in New Hampshire for six years. It was a nest of old rivalries and politics which I tried not to get involved in! But there are also wonderful things about living in a place where you can really get to know your neighbors. I am reminded of A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, which I think you read as well. Very good on the advantages and disadvantages of living in a small town, especially in the state of “Live free or die.”

    • March 9, 2022 at 8:13 pm

      Actually I haven’t read the book you mention, but I’ll look it up! I’ve always been terrible at getting to know my neighbors, but this is the longest I’ve lived in one place (15 yrs) and my neighbor is lovely.

      • March 10, 2022 at 12:13 am

        The libertarian book is a must-read! Equally hilarious and dismaying.

  10. March 9, 2022 at 5:47 am

    I love Major Pettigrew – I live near a small town in a very different part of UK but competely recognise where he’s coming from.

    • March 9, 2022 at 8:08 pm

      Thanks for sharing. Major Pettigrew was such a great book. I love books set in the UK.

  11. March 9, 2022 at 10:14 am

    Great topic and book choices! I’ve been reading more romance these past couple of years, and keep ending up with books with small town settings — besides the ones you mention,a few fun ones were Evvie Drake Starts Over, The Invisible Husband of Frick Island, and The Season for Second Chances. It’s a good trope!

    • March 9, 2022 at 8:06 pm

      I’ve heard of Evvie Drake quite a bit, but I haven’t heard of the other two you suggest. Thanks for the recommendations! I’ve read a lot more romance the last couple of years too. Reading for fun and comfort has seemed more important.

      • March 11, 2022 at 8:35 pm

        Absolutely. I get enough bleakness in the real world — I’ve been relying more on upbeat reading to get a break!

  12. Poinsettia
    March 9, 2022 at 1:56 pm

    I’ve always lived in smaller towns and they can make great settings for books! Here is our Top Ten Tuesday. Thank you!

    • March 9, 2022 at 8:04 pm

      Thanks for visiting! I’m glad you’ve had good experiences in small towns, would love to hear any recommendations for small town reads.

  13. March 9, 2022 at 2:58 pm

    I’m a big fan of small towns and books set in small towns. I live in an unincorporated village and love going to the grocery store, coffee shop, town party and everyone knows everyone! But different strokes!

    You have some of my favorite books/authors on that list. Kent Haruf was a CO treasure and loved Plainsong so much. Those brothers were such excellent characters. I also really like Major Pettigrew and Olive Kittridge. I like Jane Harper’s books but haven’t read The Lost Man yet. I have yet to read Nobody’s Food, but Russo is wonderful.

    After reading A Town Called Solace, Crow Lake is on my TBR list, as is Animal Dreams. I’ve read most of Kingsolver’s later books but not her early stuff.

    And now I have to go put Blackbird House on the TBR list on GoodReads.

    Thanks for an excellent list 🙂 Fun to read.

    • March 9, 2022 at 8:03 pm

      Thanks for sharing Jane! I’m loving hearing about readers’ experiences in small towns. I’m glad you love yours. I’m really excited to read Town Called Solace, it’s nice to see Mary Lawson getting a lot of attention.

  14. March 10, 2022 at 8:13 am

    This is one of my favorite tropes! I’ve always lived in small towns. They’re okay. Usually. 🙂

  15. March 11, 2022 at 1:29 pm

    This is definitely one of my favorite tropes. Usually I see this in the cozy mystery books, of the Miss Marple variety. So I like that your picks gave me so many interesting recs! There’s a show on Olive Kitteridge that I’m definitely looking forward to.

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