The fault in my location

Google Maps Indianapolis

I read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green this weekend because I kept hearing about how highly anticipated the movie is. I was afraid the book might not live up to the hype, but it did, being equal parts funny and sad, exploring light-hearted topics like life and death and the fear of oblivion. Would you believe me if I told you it’s also a teen romance?

What I didn’t know is that the story is set in Indianapolis, the city I lived in for 10+ years of my life. I can’t recall ever reading a book set in a city I know intimately. The closest experience I can think of is when I watched the movie Stripes and recognized many of the locations in Louisville that Bill Murphy was driving through. There was also the time I watched the movie Eagle Eye and cracked up laughing when Shia LaBeouf’s character is supposedly running around 56th street in Indianapolis which is populated by skyscrapers in the film, but is actually a suburban neighborhood in real life.

I have mixed feelings about the affect the location had on me. On one hand, it was cool to read a book and recognize many of the landmarks or streets the author mentions. On the other hand, every single time a landmark or street was mentioned that I was only somewhat familiar with, I stopped reading the book and pulled up Google maps to confirm I was thinking of the right spot. Of great help was this photo tour site where someone went to every location in the book and took photographs. Evidently I’m not the only one a bit obsessed with this. Even though using real locations added realism to the book, it also pulled me out of the story momentarily.

It was also initially confusing when the author mentioned Memorial Hospital, a hospital that I do not believe exists in Indy. There used to be a hospital called Wishard Memorial, but it was recently renamed, and even when it was still Wishard Memorial I don’t recall it being the location of cancer research like Memorial hospital is in the book. (I could be wrong though.) The book also refers to Children’s Hospital, which could be the Riley Hospital for Children, but most people call that Riley, not Children’s, as far as I know. I’d guess the author used imaginary hospital names to avoid any libel issues, which is understandable. I did the same thing whenever I mentioned a hospital or a doctor in my headache memoir. However, when it happened in a book that also included lots of real locations it was jarring.

The only readers having this experience are the ones who’ve lived in Indy, which is probably a small percentage of the global readership of the book. But it was interesting to see how my personal geography history could affect the way I related to a book. Sometimes I felt like I was in on a secret because I figured out where the characters were going on a picnic just by a few hints about where they were driving, or when I learned one character went to North Central High School which is where I voted early in 2008. Other times I felt like the book would have been more enjoyable if I didn’t feel compelled to pause for a minute and try to figure out if the Speedway gas station at 86th Street and Ditch Road was close to the Staples store I remembered in that area or if it was farther past that.

Has anyone else had a similar experience reading a book set in a location you’re really familiar with? Did it add to or take away from the story?

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  1. Laura says

    I live in a suburb of Atlanta and a lot of movies have been filmed around here. The only one that really distracted me was The Hunger Games: Catching Fire because the landmarks they chose are REALLY iconic in Atlanta and I recognized them immediately.

  2. JenFul says

    @Laura – I heard that an elevator used for a scene in Catching Fire is the one at a hotel that hosts Dragon*Con, a huge sci-fi/fantasy convention. Since that elevator scene involves someone taking off their clothes it sounded like there might be a big risk of people trying to recreate that scene at the next con :)

  3. says

    I don’t remember the title, but I read a true story account of a woman who had munchausens by proxy that was set in Columbus, Ohio, where I used to live. It was a little distracting, especially because I lived there at the time the woman was hurting her children. I wondered if I ever passed any of them on the street or in the grocery.

  4. Naantje says

    I’ve had a couple of experiences like that. I’ve read a couple of books that feature my home town (Ghent) Amsterdam, where I worked for two years, and Utrecht, which I don’t know quite as well, but well enough to get sparks of recognition. I always enjoy it very much, as you said: it makes the story feel more real.

    I also had the experience of seeing my home town in TV shows, which always sparks some pride. And on the movie Ben X (which was rather big in Flanders, won one award at the Istanbul film festival and three awards at the film festival of Montreal) was not only shot in my home town, our own front door acted as the main character’s front door. It weird then to see the inside of his house, because it is rather different in lay-out and decor than our home.

  5. says

    I didn’t know the city well, but when I read a book set in Minneapolis just after visiting, it was helpful to be able to visualize the fountain and parks it mentioned. Maybe not knowing it too well meant I could ignore all the street and neighborhood references.
    Realted, though it wasn’t a book… it was a little odd in Terms of Endearment to see the campus of Lincoln Nebraska (where I went to school) rearranged… in one scene a character ran out of a building across a lawn in front of another… and those two places are waaaaaaay far apart in real life.

  6. says

    I have read some Patricia Cornwell books. Her character, Kay Scarpetta, works in Richmond, VA, which is the area where I live. For the most part, while some of the generalities are correct, most of the specifics are totally hosed from reality. Still enjoyable though.

  7. Pam says

    Definitely added to my enjoyment of the books I have read that took place in Lincoln, NE. Since I am still here at the age of 63, I don’t have to look anything up on the Internet, I pretty much know what’s still here, what’s not here, and what was probably made up. But I LOVE reading books that take place here, I wish there was more. Maybe I should write one? Ah yes, forgot that one BIG thing I lack—-talent. ALAS!

  8. Poppy says

    I live in Chicago and I can’t even count the number of books, movies & TV shows set here. Usually they use the downtown Loop area and it drives me crazy when someone slides right into a parking space say, in front of the Water Tower Mall (no parking, ever – just cab stands). The one book that really struck a chord with me was The Time Travelers Wife because it’s set in the neighborhood I live in and I have been to so many of the places that were in the book. The movie High Fidelity was switched to Chicago and John Cusack supposedly based the record store on one I shopped at throughout my youth but it was sadly only a pale imitation.

  9. says

    from Chicago also,

    The Time Traveler’s Wife bothered me, the Rainbow Rink was demolished in real life (sad) yet continued on in the book

    bad Steven Seagal movie, Above the Law was set in our neighborhood, church, stinker of a movie, yet sentimental time capsule of Wicker Park and Bucktown pregentrification and gutting by greedy developers

  10. says

    No stories in my location to share, but I loved The Fault in Our Starts. I listened to it on audio and the reader they chose was perfect. I’m looking forward to the film.

  11. Moira Oliver says

    Hi Jen
    I read a book set in the small town i grew up in. The author also changed a couple of names and i found this irritating but overall it was interesting to get another perspective on the village and what, potentially, could be going on – it was a very dark novel. I was also tempted to go and check up on some stuff and kept reading bits out to my husband (which he must have found quite irritating. Knowing the location does take you out of the story a bit but it was still a good read. Living in South Africa we are exposed to a lot of US and UK locations in books and movies so it was fun to actually know the areas being described for a change.

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