North Carthage, Missouri, 2012
If you've ever been to a big city—especially New York City, where our main characters once lived—you know that the Midwest is about as far from the big city as you can get, and Missouri is about as Midwestern as life comes. Nick and Amy's move to Nick's fictional hometown of North Carthage is a game changer in their marriage. Nick tells us:
I simply assumed I would bundle up my New York wife with her New York interests, her New York pride, and remove her from her New York parents—leave the frantic, thrilling futureland of Manhattan behind—and transplant her to a little town on the river in Missouri and all would be fine. (1.17)
It isn't fine. Actually, North Carthage is pretty much the most depressing place ever. It may be, as Nick says, a "quaint little 1950s town that bloated itself into a basic midsized suburb and dubbed it progress" (1.35), but progress is the last thing happening around these parts as of late.
The town's been hit hard by the recession—Nick and Amy live in a mostly vacant development full of "gaping, dark houses" (3.68)—and the closing of the local mall ruined the entire town financially, so now there are huge epidemics of crime and homelessness. Things are so bad that people actually go to the local blood donation clinic to pick up extra cash. "Guys are camped out everywhere," Nick tells Gilpin. "This whole town is overrun with pissed-off, unemployed people" (11.4). It adds an eerie and dreary feeling to the dark events of this novel.
Since North Carthage obviously won't be your next Spring Break destination, why do we care about this sad, pathetic place? Answer: North Carthage provides a symbolic portrait of what Nick and Amy's marriage has become.
While things were mostly awesome in New York, the North Carthage chapter of Nick and Amy's relationship is, well, in a recession. They can't communicate and have little to no intimacy in their marriage. They fight a lot. Nick has an affair. Amy gets depressed. Therefore, a city marked by economic devastation during a time of financial hardship makes a pretty good place to set a story about a failing relationship.