Fiction, Great Reads in Great Places

Great Reads in Great Places: Providence, Rhode Island

I’m a sucker for wandering around old streets, visiting stately homes and sitting out with a good book and a great view to enjoy my coffee. But where to get this in a country that glorifies the new, the shiny, the current?

I fell in love with New England without ever actually visiting. Instagram is awash with gorgeous images of colonial clapboard houses, delicious seafood platters and LL Bean boots surrounded with enough snow and plaid to make a lumberjack blush. I was left with the impression that there is something rather magical and quaint about these northern states and as an émigré of Old England, I was curious to see how history was conserved and presented in the land of the free and home of the ‘what?! It’s 50 years old?! Tear it down and build something new!’ Part of me was secretly hoping that I would be able to find a little something of the wild and beautiful places described in Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ series and Sara Donati’s ‘Wilderness’ books on the way – obviously with 21st century luxuries like plumbing though!

Given that I can’t actually get on a plane without a doctor’s note now, being eight and a half months pregnant, one of our main criteria was that we should be able to road trip there in a decent amount of time from our Brooklyn apartment. Where was within a four hour drive of New York and could be ‘done’ in a weekend?

We plotted a route that would take us up the coast as far as Providence, Rhode Island, where we would spend the night, and would enable us to stop off and take in some typically New England sights.

The main book I’d be taking with me on this trip was Jodi Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper”. Set in fictional Upper Darby, Rhode Island, the book follows the story of 13 year old Anna who sues her parents for medical emancipation after she is expected to donate a kidney to her sister who is suffering from leukaemia.

Our first stop was in Connecticut. Mystic is famous for its pizza and its seaport and neither disappointed. The town itself is small and nestled on the coast, consisting of a busy (even in February) Main Street complete with cafés, artisan shops promoting local craftspeople and rather ingeniously, its very own Mystic Psychic!

Lunch was, obviously, at Mystic Pizza – the restaurant made famous by the eponymous 1988 Julia Roberts film. It proved to be a lovely slice of Americana; friendly staff and tasty deep pan pizza were the order of the day. They even have a decent range of gluten free options which was something we weren’t necessarily expecting outside of New York.

Our last stop in Mystic was the outdoor museum at Mystic Seaport. We arrived quite late in the afternoon and managed to get half price tickets as well – something to think about if you’re like us and tend to whizz around museums! In amongst the tall ships and whaling boats on display is also a fully restored whaling village. This was the best part of the museum for me. The attention to detail is second to none and the staff on hand to talk you through are extremely knowledgable. The actors in costume were a nice touch! I imagine that this gets very busy in the Summer months, but we really felt like we didn’t miss much coming in the off season.

Providence would be our main base for the weekend. We were staying at the Renaissance Downtown Providence – a lovely, if corporate feeling, hotel that overlooks the Rhode Island State House. Our concierge recommended Hemenway’s restaurant as a taste of New England for dinner. This raw bar and seafood specialty restaurant was extremely busy and definitely needs to be booked in advance. There’s a brilliant range of dishes on offer including classic chowder, oysters and lobster served in a myriad of imaginative and delicious ways.

The next morning we decided to walk around the Brown University campus and see Benefit Street, the main historic district. I was able to set up camp in these gorgeous surroundings and catch up on my Great Read.

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Jodi Picoult’s novel has a tendency to divide readers. Lauded by many, others find her style contrived and lightweight in nature. There is no doubt that this book is uneven in terms of how well each of the narrative voices are fleshed out, but in the main Picoult has done a good job of crafting separate rhythms and perspectives. The story is shamelessly emotional and uses a variety of metaphoric devices to ensure that you are in no doubt about the differing directions the characters are pulled in. It’s not a particularly subtle book, but it is eminently readable and, as a soon to be mother, certainly made me question what I might do if I found myself in Sara Fitzgerald’s awful situation. I enjoyed the pace of this novel and felt that it was easy to get swept along with the journeys these characters take.

On our way back to Brooklyn we decided to stop in Newport and see the harbour and mansions that snake around the lower coast. I loved the rows of immaculate clapboard houses that lead onto upmarket Thames Street. It was strange to see plaques on the houses detailing date of construction and the original owner; some of the buildings were only 30 years older than our cottage in London! There was much about this little coastal town that reminded me of Padstow and Rock in Cornwall – a plethora of restaurants serving the day’s fresh catch and plenty of places to indulge in some serious retail therapy, especially if you have a thing for nautical home decor.

Standing proud on the cliff edge at the eastern tip is The Breakers – the grandest of the mansions around Bellevue Avenue, and former home of the Vanderbilt railroad family. This glorious Gatsbyesque monument to wealth and luxury has fabulous views of the rugged New England coastline and is full of carefully restored and preserved furniture from the house’s golden age in the late 19th / early 20th century. The audio tour is comprehensive and gives you a couple of hours to explore the main rooms.

Overall this was a really good mini road trip and we definitely felt that we were able to fit enough into the two days to give us a flavour of New England. I can’t wait to come back!

Already read ‘My Sister’s Keeper’?

Why not try these other titles set in Connecticut and Rhode Island:

  • ‘The Witches of Eastwick’ – John Updike
  • ‘Summer by the Sea’ – Susan Wiggs
  • ‘Theophilius North’ – Thornton Wilder
  • ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • ‘The Stepford Wives’ – Ira Levin
  • ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ – Mark Twain
  • ‘Revolutionary Road’ – Richard Yates
  • ‘The Great Gatsby’ – F. Scott Fitzgerald (not set in New England but reading this whilst walking around The Breakers is a perfect combo!)

If you have Rhode Island or Connecticut based recommendations then add them to the comments below 🙂

5 thoughts on “Great Reads in Great Places: Providence, Rhode Island”

  1. I think you might have done the same road trip as I did, but in reverse order. I drove from Boston to Providence, then to Mystic City and to Lordship, all in one day. It was quite tiring but well worth it. You’ve taken some nice shots too…

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, “The Call of Cthulhu” is fundamental, explaining what started the interest in tentacled monstrosities. “The Strange High House in the Mist” is one of my faves, without a tentacle in sight. A longer tale set in Providence, with a good dose of local history, is “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” And then there’s “Herbert West, Reanimator.” Not one of HPL’s best, but it inspired my novel, The Friendship of Mortals.

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