10 Evocative Literary Fiction Books Set in Small Towns

By Joanne Camas

You’ll happily get lost in these transporting reads.

Skillful writers welcome us into the literary world they create, often so subtly that we don’t realize it’s happening. The authors of the compelling fiction books below do just that, crafting immersive narratives set in small-town locales that are suffused with authenticity, grit, and bighearted drama.

Rustic charm: a weathered barn under a clear blue sky.

Mercury

By Amy Jo Burns

A tightly knit blue-collar community with long-simmering secrets serves as the backdrop to this powerful family drama by Amy Jo Burns. Mercury takes place in the fictional town of Mercury, a hardscrabble Pennsylvania setting where you can practically hear the freight trains rumble across the trestle bridge and see the mist roll up the river valley. At the heart of the narrative are the three Joseph brothers and young Marley West, a 17-year-old outcast who soon falls in with the siblings and their struggling roofing business. The novel weaves back and forth through time to tell its moving tale, gathering emotional layers as Marley becomes a wife to one of the brothers, a lost love to another, and a maternal figure to all three. When a shocking truth is discovered in the attic of the local church, loyalties are tested, and the Josephs must decide if they can — or should — salvage the family they’ve built together. 

The image displays the cover of a book titled "plainsong" by kent haruf, which is labeled as a national bestseller and has an accolade from the american booksellers association. the new york times book review is quoted at the bottom, praising the book. the cover features a dramatic cloud-filled sky above a subdued landscape.

Plainsong

By Kent Haruf

In Plainsong, a finalist for the National Book Award, Kent Haruf paints a bleak yet beautiful picture of Colorado’s eastern plains where seven characters endure lives of heartbreak, loneliness, and joy. Teacher Tom Guthrie is scrambling to raise his sons when their mother is overcome with depression and leaves. Victoria, a pregnant teen, is abandoned by the baby’s father and cast out by her mother. Brothers Raymond and Harold McPheron are ranchers who remained bachelors, living and working together without families of their own. Haruf’s rugged and romantic setting draws us into his narrative, as characters struggle through hardship and search for community when they need it most.

The cover of the pulitzer prize-winning novel "gilead" by marilynne robinson, featuring a simple, rustic wooden background with the title and author's name prominently displayed.

Gilead

By Marilynne Robinson

The fictional town of Gilead in Marilynne Robinson’s expansive, Pulitzer Prize–winning family saga is just as much a primary character as the three generations of Ames men whose lives are chronicled in the novel. Elderly, ill preacher John Ames tells his family story through a letter written to his young son — the reverend’s pacifist father and abolitionist grandfather were also ministers in this Iowa town, each with their own stories to tell. Just as the Ames family’s approach to faith and its place in the community changes with each generation, so too does Gilead. At first glance, it’s Small Town America, all neat and tidy. Below the surface, however, tensions mount and hardships roil.

A book cover featuring a stylized graphic of a broken crescent moon set against a deep blue background with a texture resembling a starry night sky. the title "the half moon" is prominently displayed in bold, white upper-case lettering, with the tagline "a novel" underneath. the author's name, "mary beth keane," is credited below in yellow, with a note mentioning she is "the new york times bestselling author of ask again, yes.

The Half Moon

By Mary Beth Keane

When we meet Malcolm and Jess Gephardt in The Half Moon, the life they share is beginning to unravel. The couple’s marriage is on the rocks, Malcolm is scrambling to keep his beloved but foundering bar afloat in the small town of Gillam, while Jess is slowly drifting away. When a blizzard descends and traps everyone inside under a flurry of snow, matters are finally brought to a head. Can the pair figure out a way to salvage their relationship and the bar? A moving portrait of heartbreak and forgiveness, Mary Beth Keane’s bestselling novel “finds the extraordinary grace in our achingly ordinary world” (The New York Times Book Review). 

An artistic book cover design for "everything i never told you" by celeste ng, featuring a mix of typography on different colored paper scraps against a textured blue background.

Everything I Never Told You

By Celeste Ng

In this acclaimed literary fiction novel set in a small town, Celeste Ng, the bestselling author of Little Fires Everywhere, probes the inner lives of a grieving Chinese American family as they search for answers after their daughter’s sudden death. Everything I Never Told You takes place in 1970s Ohio, where young Lydia Lee, the prized daughter of Marilyn and James Lee, is found dead in a local lake. As shockwaves spread through the tight-knit community, Marilyn and James scramble to make sense of their loss, sifting through clues and unearthing family secrets in their quest to understand the daughter they thought they knew. 

An artistic book cover of "the good lord bird" author james mcbride's novel, "the heaven & earth grocery store," depicting a stylized individual carrying grocery bags, set against a textured beige backdrop with bold typography.

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store

By By James McBride

In The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, National Book Award winner James McBride transports us to a dynamic small-town setting populated by unforgettable characters. Kindred spirits live in Chicken Hill, a scrappy neighborhood in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, that immigrant Jews and African Americans call home. Despite the lack of money and the profound challenges its residents endure, the community is lively and generous, with the Heaven and Earth Grocery Store as its welcoming hub. When Pottstown workers unearth a skeleton at the bottom of a well years later, the discovery reveals long-hidden truths about this close-knit enclave.  

A book cover with a vivid, warm-toned backdrop depicting a desert landscape, featuring the title "the lost man" by jane harper, noted as a new york times bestseller and the author of "the dry," with the intriguing tagline "three brothers, one death, no answers...

The Lost Man

By Jane Harper

Pour yourself a glass of water before reading Jane Harper’s blazing small-town mystery set in the parched expanse of Queensland, Australia. The three Bright brothers eke out an agrarian existence for their families in the austere Australian outback. When middle brother Cam is found dead in a remote corner of the family ranch, difficult questions arise and old secrets and resentments bubble back to the surface. Did Cam take his own life — or has something far more nefarious gone down in this blazing-hot outpost at the edge of the world? Vivid and compelling, The Lost Man is “a twisty slow burner by an author at the top of her game” (Kirkus Reviews).

 

A book cover for "olive kitteridge" by elizabeth strout, highlighting a single, detailed leaf against a sepia-toned background, with an emblem indicating the book is a pulitzer prize winner.

Olive Kitteridge

By Elizabeth Strout

The eccentric Olive Kitteridge sits at the center of this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel-in-stories, while the scenic descriptions of the idyllic coastal town of Crosby, Maine, tie everything together. Olive is a retired schoolteacher, and her husband, Henry, runs the pharmacy one town over. Olive is at times stern, though good at heart, while Henry is cheery and thoughtful, as open to others as Olive is closed off from them. Meanwhile, Crosby boasts all the benefits and drawbacks of small-town living: You know everyone’s business intimately…and you know everyone’s business intimately. As we follow the retired teacher through Olive Kitteridge, we learn what makes her tick and get to watch her grow, along with her friends, neighbors, and family

Sing, Unburied, Sing

By Jesmyn Ward

In her National Book Award–winning novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward takes us on an “odyssey through rural Mississippi’s past and present” (The Philadelphia Inquirer) as a fractured family tries to make itself whole again. In the fictional small town of Bois Sauvage, 13-year-old Jojo strives to take care of himself and his little sister, Kayla, as their unpredictable mother, Leonie, struggles with addiction and visions of her dead brother. When Michael, the children’s father, is set to be released from the Mississippi State Penitentiary, Leonie packs up the family in the car, and together they embark on a road trip across the state to reconcile their past with the present and the promise of the future. 

A book cover for the novel "prodigal summer" by barbara kingsolver, featuring lush green foliage in the background, symbolizing themes of nature and growth.

Prodigal Summer

By Barbara Kingsolver

We wrap up our list of small-town fiction books with Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, a sweeping novel set over one muggy summer in the lush mountain forests and farming communities of southern Appalachia. Deanna Wolfe is a wildlife biologist who maintains trails and chases off poachers, all while keeping a close eye on the coyotes that have appeared in the surrounding wilderness. In the valley below, human creatures carry out their delicate dances with nature, too — one through the marvel of insects, another in a quarrel with her neighbor to stop his pesticides from drifting onto her apple orchard. Kingsolver’s gorgeous, multilayered tale is a paean to the complexity of the human heart and the interconnectivity of all things, whether it’s protecting our fragile coexistence with nature or balancing love and our values. 

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