This Close to Okay, Subtext, and a Layering of Setting
Leesa Cross-Smith's This Close to Okay is a novel about a recently divorced therapist who stops a man from jumping off a bridge and then befriends him. One of the ways Cross-Smith makes the characters both real and compelling is through her deployment of setting and subtext.
The book opens with Tallie stopping her car on a bridge. It's a close third-person POV, aligned with Tallie, and she describes "the gray Ohio River below them, a swift-rippling ribbon." She mentions the metal railing on the bridge, that it's raining, and "the crepuscular light."
So the situation is threatening. The bridge is high, and a man might jump. The light and the weather add to the sense of danger. The colors, gray and metallic, are both dreary and menacing. The river is strong and fast. The world is unsafe and out of control.
Then Tallie gets out of her car and begins a conversation with the man. To help her find the right words, she conjures up her office:
Instead of being out in the cold rain, she imagined they were in her cozy office with the calming lapis walls, the white-noise machine, her chair—a basil green. The shiny, honey- smooth hardwood floors; the soothing, soft almond suede couch. She had a scented-oil diffuser on a table by the window—lavender and a hint of lemon; she’d mixed it herself. There were potted spider and dracaena plants, bamboo palms, a Monstera, succulents in the sunlight—natural air purifiers. The bookshelves were packed neat and tight, with an amber salt lamp atop the one closest to the door. She pictured her office perfectly, transported herself there in her mind, willed that calm into her voice.
I love how this paragraph surfaces the technique of describing a character's inner mental space through setting. Think of a "dark and stormy night"—that one is a cliché, but it's a cliché that works. We understand a character's inner torment—or inner peace—through their surroundings. A room or a weather system overlays a mind.
Cross-Smith's is not a cliché, but she makes doubly sure of that by deploying the strategy in a situation where the character would realistically imagine the space that represents her own mind. It makes sense, in this moment of uncertainty, for Tallie to imagine the safety and comfort of her office.
But I'm more interested in the effects it has on the reader and the story. For the reader, the space Tallie imagines is exactly as real as the rain she is standing in. In fact, for the reader, it's more real due to the detail with which it is described.
And let's take a quick look at those details—the soft colors and textures, the soothing smells and sounds. We know Tallie has purposefully decorated the room to emanate safety and peace. She has decorated her own interior self the same way. This room is how we understand the ideal version of Tallie. It's how she sees herself, or at least how she wants to.
When the imagined setting is described inside of the actual (and yes—they're both imagined—that's important), it creates a layering of place and a particular depth to the story.
The experience of being in the rain is enhanced by the image of the cozy office. Part of that is through contrast. The weather is more threatening when compared to a sheltered space. The danger more real when compared to safety.
And yet danger pierces her safe office because the plant names are so sinister: spider, dracaena, Monstera, succulents. The reader may or may not know that those are common, peaceful, and calming houseplants, but the names still evoke monsters. Maybe the plant names are like the rain slashing at Tallie's face as imagines her soothing office.
The puncturing, both by the rain and by the monster plants, makes me speculate about how else Tallie's perfect room and carefully decorated sense of self might be tested throughout the story. I'm not giving spoilers, but that's a compelling thing to wonder. (Okay, one spoiler: setting does other amazing things in the book.)
I'm also fascinated by the way an interior (mental) space is inserted after the description of an exterior (physical) space. When I'm in a room, I'm also in my mind. Reading this passage, I'm sort of turduckened. I'm in my mind, which is inside Tallie's mind (the therapy office), which is inside the scene itself (the rain and the bridge). So many layers!
When Tallie emerges from her imagination onto the rainy bridge, she leaves the imagined office and also carries it with her. As a reader, when I join Tallie in leaving behind the mental space of the office, I just might be tricked into also leaving my own personal interior space behind. So I'm less myself and more immersed in the scene with Tallie.
What I'm saying is transitions between spaces can contain more than they seem to. Doorways can align. We might mean to leave just the one room but accidentally leave two.
And, paradoxically, I haven't left anything fully behind. The imagined room remains, ghosted, in my brain. So Tallie's brain is ghosted there, too. After this occurs, all of her experiences are a little bit more inside of me and I'm a little bit more inside of them.