"What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is set entirely in the Albuquerque apartment of Mel and Terri McGinnis. It takes places over the course of an afternoon, in late summer or early fall. Not only do the characters never leave the apartment, they never leave the kitchen table. This bare-bones setting is perfect for the story. It's a story where two couples (Mel and Terri and Nick and Laura) talk about love while polishing off two bottles of gin.
This isn't some fancy dinner party. This is four friends drinking cocktails in their apartment, and you don't need much detail to get that point across. There's no need for Carver to get all fancy here. Although it's set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, it could be set almost anywhere—anywhere, that is, where people can sit around drinking in their apartments and talking about affairs of the heart. Nick drives this point home when he mentions, early on, that "we were all from somewhere else" (1).
Even though all that really goes down in this story is a lot of drinking, a whole lot of talking, and even more drinking, the apartment does become a more complex setting as the story unfolds. We learn that Mel and Terri were living here when Mel was going through an ugly divorce, and so it was probably the site of lots of anxiety, phone-call fighting, and frantic calls to Mel's lawyer. To make matters worse, Ed was stalking Mel and Terri, who were living together at the time.
The apartment is quiet and peaceful now, but it used to be a place of fear and conflict. It was also probably a place of refuge. Mel and Terri got through it after all. They've been married for five years. At that early point in their relationship, when both of them were suffering from both of their exes, they were still able to stick together and build a relationship.
Sure, the apartment has changed a lot over the years, but it also changes, in small ways, over the course of the evening. In the beginning, "Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink" (1). Later, the sunlight takes on a strange quality, almost becoming a character in the story: "The afternoon sunlight was like a presence in this room, the spacious light of ease and generosity." As their conversation flows, so does the sunlight—making them cozy and comfortable as they chat with friends.
But then, at the end, the sunlight disappears, and with it the "ease and generosity." As the conversation turns colder and darker, so do their surroundings: "The light was draining out of the room, going back through the window where it had come from. Yet nobody made a move to get up from the table to turn on the overhead light."
Finally, at the end of the story, the light disappears completely, and, while everyone sits there silently, Nick tells us that "the room went dark."
We don't know about you, but Shmoop thinks there's something to that sunlight, and its slow, gradual disappearance throughout the story. As the tension between Mel and Terri rises, the light slowly disappears from the room, taking with it the comfort and joy one might find in friends. By the end of the story, when they're all sitting in a dark room, making no effort to turn on the light or head out to dinner, we can't help but assume that they're all feeling, well, depressed. Or at the very least, changed.
The hospital where Mel works as a heart surgeon is the major setting for both the story of Ed (Terri's example of true love) and for the story of the old couple (Mel's example of true love).
Like Mel and Terri's apartment, the hospital is a generic hospital with nothing to distinguish it from any other hospital in America. Readers can easily fill in the details, based on reruns of ER.
So why bother paying attention to the hospital? For one reason, and one reason only: it connects love with violence. Ed is in the hospital because he did violence to himself in the name of love. Terri shows her love for him by staying with him in the hospital, even though he has done violence to her, in the name of love. The old couple are victims of a drunk driver and are experiencing extreme physical injury, but they stick together in the name of love. Geez, where's Bono when you need him?