Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Setting: Where the Heart Feels at Home

My husband and I in front of the Trevi Fountain in Rome.
Have you ever visited a place for the first time and felt as though you were finally at home?

That's what it was like for me when I first set foot in Italy. And—more incredibly—it's felt that way every time I've been fortunate enough to travel there. I'd expected the magic to wear off after a visit or two, due to familiarity or the added perspective of age, but it's remained constant through the my love of Renaissance art, Murano glass beads, or freshly made chocolate-orange gelato. (For the record, Festival del Gelato in Florence is my favorite gelateria in the world!)

Then again, maybe I'm biased because I'd daydreamed about taking a trip to the famous cities of Venice, Florence, and Rome ever since I was a little kid. Or possibly because our close family friends were native Sicilians. Or because my dad had spent a memorable summer working in that country before he met my mom, and I grew up hearing stories of Italy's beauty. Or maybe it's just because I really love ravioli, passionately sung music, Mediterranean shorelines, and pure southern European sunshine.

"Marilyn Brant's A SUMMER IN EUROPE
is a wonderful tale that captivates readers
as Gwen, transformed by her surroundings,
undergoes a change of heart about life...
and love." ~Doubleday Book Club
I poured my love and first impressions of Italy into a novel called A Summer in Europe (Kensington, 2011). The main character, Gwen, takes her first trip abroad with her eccentric aunt Bea and the elderly lady's outspoken Sudoku & Mahjongg playing friends. The adventure opens Gwen's eyes to the wonderful transformative power of travel and getting to see the world through a new lens at long last. It's a happy story of a woman who's on an inward journey as much as an outward one—though, of course, she doesn't know that at first.

What's always intriguing to me about travel is that, even when we know a trip has the power to change us, I don't think it's possible for us to truly recognize that change happening until we're at least halfway through it. Or maybe even home again...

I remember being sixteen and an AFS exchange student in Brisbane, Australia. I couldn't believe I'd been lucky enough to be chosen for this dream placement. (The residents often called it a "sun-burned" country, but I just called it "gorgeous," especially with sites like the Sydney Opera House, the Gold Coast, the Great Barrier Reef, and real live koalas that I could hold...) I'd read the student-exchange materials with tremendous interest. All of those handouts and brochures that the organizers had sent us—not just about the host country, but also about the time we'd be spending with our host families and our host schools. We were cautioned that we would need to change and adapt to our new environment. That there would be a lot of information to process. That it would be a roller coaster of emotions.

And it was.

Somewhere in the middle of my summer (their winter) stay, I wrote in my trip journal that I was supposed to have changed from all of this, right? Hey, I'd entered into this journey being open to change. I'd expected it. So, why hadn't it happened yet? I felt almost exactly the same as when I'd left home. To my own eye, I was still this mostly geeky, sort of awkward high-school girl who was good as school stuff and not entirely comfortable with much else. It was only in retrospect—some months after I gotten back—that I could see in hindsight that there had been changes all along. Some were subtle shifts in perception. Others were massive worldview transformations that, ultimately, ended up altering the course of my career path and my life.
"Gelato" Photo by Aaron Logan, courtesy
of Wikimedia/Creative Commons

I think a strong setting—whether it's in 3D right before our eyes or simply described on the page with heart and an acute attention to detail—has the power to affect as much change upon us and/or our protagonists as any other real-life person or fictional character could. It's the very air we're breathing. The sounds we're hearing. The landmarks in our periphery. And the taste (oh, the delightful taste!) of our most unforgettable dessert.

What's a setting that's left a life-long impression upon you? A place that made you feel at home?

Marilyn Brant is a USA TODAY bestselling author of contemporary women's fiction, romantic comedy, and mystery. She was named the Author of the Year (2013) by the Illinois Association of Teachers of English. She loves all things Jane Austen, has a passion for Sherlock Holmes, is a travel addict and a music junkie, and lives on chocolate and gelato. If you want to see pictures from her European travel adventures, she has a page on her website HERE. And, in her latest novel, The Road to You, her characters take a road trip down Historic Route 66, and she has photos HERE from that journey as well :) .


  1. My parents moved us to Santa Fe, NM from the flat plains of OK, just before I started first grade. I fell in love with the mountains, the artists in the plaza, and the Indians ( native Americans now). It seems that all my first major experiences of life happened there, from seeing my first astronaut face-to-face, to the vivid memory of time stopping when President Kennedy died. I was crushed when my dad's job moved us to the deserts of TX two years later and longed for "home" from then on.
    It wasn't until I was married and my husband was graduating from the State Police Academy, that I found out that he had been assigned to District One-- Santa Fe. I jumped up and down, yelled like a kid, and then sat down and cried. I was going home, after twenty years absence.
    We had the joy of living in this mecca for the next 30 Yeats and raising our family there before we too, had to move on from this place of wonder.

    1. Muse, thank you ;).
      I love reading your thoughts on Santa Fe -- I think it's one of the loveliest cities in the country -- so beautiful, so artistic, so rich in history. I've only had the pleasure of visiting there twice, the first time with my husband nearly 20 years ago (we both fell in love with it!) and, then, last summer with our son. I'm not sure if I told you that it was his very favorite city in all the West. He loved it there and wants to go back. I'm glad you and your family were able to live in that magical place for three decades!! xox

  2. Ahhh, thanks Marilyn, for bringing back memories of Italy!

    1. Ellyn,
      You're most welcome!! And thank you for taking the time to stop by. So glad to have you on the GBC with us ;).

  3. Awesome.
    Italy has been a huge inspiration for me as well. I knew when I was studying abroad in Siena that someday I would write about it.
    Some places are characters.

    1. Thanks so much, Ariella!
      I knew you and I shared a love of Italy -- I agree that it's a place that inspires stories ;). Siena was so unusual and lovely, must have had an incredible time there!

  4. Hi Marilyn, sorry it took me so long to see this :(
    There have been many settings (in books) that make me feel like that and this travel-phobe needs those. I remember quite a few in the novel, from The first plane ride to when the Group all meet up to when Gwen first meets the brothers. It is one of those novels that will forever be in my memory. :)

    1. Deb,
      That you loved A Summer in Europe and took the time to share it with your fabulous online book club was one of the highlights of that year for me! What a fun time it was to get to discuss Gwen's European adventures with all of you!! Can't believe how the time has flown by since then -- 2 years! ago this month -- but it's a memory I will always cherish!! Thanks for your supportiveness, kindness and all-around wonderfulness ;).