Virtual Vacation: 10 Great Books Set in Places We’d Love to Visit


In these final, sweltering days of July, we find our intermittent vacation fantasies growing into full-blown obsessions. If you’re like us and still have a while to go before you can escape from your responsibilities (or if you can’t get away at all), you’ll need some kind of outlet for your daydreaming. That’s where this list comes in. We’ve rounded up ten books set in some of the world’s most desirable travel destinations, from Italy to California to Japan.

Florence and Rome

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

This classic 1908 coming-of-age novel finds a young English girl, Lucy Honeychurch, touring Italy under the too-watchful eye of her older cousin, Charlotte. It’s a story filled with discovery — of Florence, Rome, and love. Sites are seen; rigid social boundaries are broken. A Room with a View is the kind of juicy beach read you can actually admit to buying.

Big Sur

Big Sur by Jack Kerouac

One of America’s most majestic regions provides the setting for this late Kerouac novel, a sprawling book that finds the author’s alter ego, Jack Duluoz, hiding out and spiraling into alcoholism at a friend’s Bixby Canyon cabin. Although his emotional state isn’t exactly pleasant, Kerouac’s descriptions of Big Sur are truly breathtaking. If you can tolerate experimental poetry, you’re sure to find “Sea: Sounds of the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur,” the verse that ends the book, evocative.


LaBrava by Elmore Leonard

This thriller, which won the Edgar Award in 1984, is a sort of updated noir tale: Former secret service agent Joe LaBrava meets the movie star he fell in love with as a teenager while she’s recovering in a Miami rehab center. Of course, there are bad guys after her, and he has to save the day. Fans of the genre will flip over the complex plot, but everyone can appreciate Leonard’s portrayal of Florida’s darkly glamorous underbelly.

Paris, Marseilles, and Provence

My Life in France by Julia Child

Who better to guide you through a virtual trip to France than the woman who introduced America to French cuisine? The memoir covers Child’s time abroad (and then at home) with her husband, Paul, beginning in the late ’40s and spanning three decades, with stories showcasing her love affair with French food and culture, education at the Cordon Bleu, and work on her classic cookbooks. What’s palpable in everything Child did is her lust for life — and that’s what makes this memoir so delicious.


Night Fisher by R. Kikuo Johnson

This debut graphic novel follows a private-school kid who seeks to break out of his sheltered life and, in the process, finds himself mixed up with a criminal crowd. But the plot is only part of the book’s allure; Johnson gives us the beauty of contemporary Hawaii by night, without ever resorting to Tiki-kitsch cliché.


Under the Jaguar Sun” by Italo Calvino

The title piece in this collection of sense-inspired stories is devoted to taste: A couple visits Mexico, where their infatuation with its cuisine takes on a distinctly sexual tone, and eventually instills in them a visceral understanding of the nation’s violent, colonial past. “Under the Jaguar Sun” is about the mysteries and discoveries of travel. If you can’t experience that for yourself this summer, Calvino’s tale makes an uncanny substitute.


The South by Colm Tóibín

Like Calvino’s story, Tóibín’s first novel finds its protagonist exploring a new place. Katherine leaves her family in Ireland to make her home in another tumultuous place — Franco’s Barcelona in the 1950s. Amid the historical drama, she takes an artist lover and moves in a bohemian milieu, their attractive lifestyle contrasting (and conflicting) with the extreme rhetoric and political strife in both countries.


The Names by Don DeLillo

Set primarily in Greece (but also in India and the Middle East) among an expat milieu, The Names‘s plot is a murder mystery concerning an obscure “language” cult. But, as Michael Wood noted in his New York Times review, it is truly about American culture and its place in the world, as well as the uses and limitations of language in our lives. Whatever your reason for reading it, DeLillo’s evocation of the ancient land from which all Western culture springs is an excellent bonus.


Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

While their American counterparts were dropping acid and protesting the war in Vietnam, Japanese students questioned authority and embraced counterculture, too. One of Murakami’s most popular and best-loved novels, Norwegian Wood flashes back to that era in a rapidly changing Tokyo, and its then-college-aged protagonist’s doomed love affair with a mentally ill woman. For those who wish to experience the city at a particularly vital moment, through the eyes of one of Japan’s greatest authors, this is required reading.

The Hamptons

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

Whitehead’s semi-autobiographical novel is named for the town where its teenage narrator, Benji, spends his summers, in a wealthy, African-American enclave within the overwhelmingly white Hamptons of the ’80s. A geeky, pop culture-obsessed Manhattan prep schooler, he does a great deal of his growing up in the space of three months — taking his first job, kissing his first girl, and struggling with his identity. Sag Harbor will make even the most isolationist New Yorker want to hop a train for Long Island, and even the most unrepentant workaholic yearn for the long, aimless summer vacations of youth.