|Heron in the Vondelpark, Amsterdam|
Take John Green's latest novel, The Fault in Our Stars. I enjoyed the beginning, where we are introduced to teens Hazel (who has terminal cancer)and Augustus (who has had a leg amputated after suffering bone cancer), but I thought their conversations were just a little too pretentious to ring true. Then they went to Amsterdam. At first I had little quibbles ('the taxi driver wouldn't have driven through the city centre, if he's going from the airport to the Overtoom') but soon forgot them, as I was sucked in, more and more to the idea of these two in this place I knew so well. I could see them on the canals and in the streets. My imagination and memories filled in the gaps that John Green had left. Eventually there was a description of a particular corner of the Vondel Park that made my heart lurch.
Here it is: 'Before us, hundreds of people passed, jogging and biking and Rollerblading. Amsterdam was a city designed for movement and activity, a city that would rather not travel by car, and so inevitably I felt excluded from it. But God it was beautiful, the creek carving a path around the huge tree, a heron stading still at the water's edge, searching for breakfast amid the millions of elm petals floating in the water.
I read that, I recognised the deep-down truth of it, I fell in love with the book, and I forgot my doubts about Hazel and Augustus. They were as real to me as the herons and the skaters in the park that I'd seen so often and knew so well.
In contrast, the depiction of London in Jennifer E Smith's The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight kept on jolting me, because I knew more than the author. I kept on wanting to tell her things. For example, British weddings tend not to feature loads of adult bridesmaids all dressed the same, and they don't go down the aisle before the bride. Clinking a glass at a British wedding means a speech, not a kiss. Middle-class families with lots of children don't tend to live in Paddington - just three examples, but I could go on and on. 'Everything in this city seems old, but charmingly so, like something out of a movie.' is not a meaningful description to a Londoner.
I concluded that Jennifer E Smith's research had mostly been conducted by watching Richard Curtis films, and to be fair, none of the above would put off most readers of this soft-centred romance. But they put me off, and meant that I didn't take the love story or the main character's angst over her father's remarriage all that seriously.
When you don't know a setting, the details don't matter. But when you do - they matter more than you realise.