New York City, 2005; Poland, 1941; Chile, 1941-1978
The book has some serious frequent flier mileage under its belt (note: this also includes time-machine frequent flier mileage).
Most of the action, though, takes place in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. Although our characters are often alone, the fact that they're surrounded by millions of neighbors is difficult to ignore. The only wildlife is a pigeon on Leo's windowsill. Short jaunts into the suburbs (specifically, Long Island and Connecticut) reinforce the claustrophobia of the city. On these trips, Leo marvels at the rural surroundings: "The train left the city behind. Green fields fell away to either side […] It had been a long time since I'd been out of the city. I stood in wonder at the greenness of everything" (10.12).
Leo's flashbacks to life in Poland before and during World War II put this "concrete present" into even sharper focus. He recalls the town square, the bridge he used to jump off into the freezing river below, and "the fields where we used to play, the field in which everything was discovered and everything was possible" (1.28). In this way, the time before World War II is described as a lost paradise (maybe even a Garden of Eden) of innocence, safety, and beauty, before the horrors of war stole that security and replaced it with unspeakable suffering. It's perhaps telling that Leo spends his three years hiding from the Nazis "mostly in trees" (1.34), helping him remain at least somewhat protected by the past.
And speaking of the past, as with many books about immigrants, it's probably not much of a stretch to assume that the Old World (Europe) represents the past and the New World (the Americas) represents the future (or at least the present). But can we take this further? Specifically, what's the difference between Leo settling down in New York City and Litvinoff finding himself in Chile? One thought is that the two cities have almost precisely the same longitude, so they could be described as a mirror image of one another, or perhaps even opposites.
As we mentioned above, Leo is very firmly situated in New York City at the time of the book, and we join him in his walks around the city. With Litvinoff, however, we get quite the opposite. Although the Litvinoff scenes take place in Chile (aside from the prologue in Poland), there's little that specifically connects him to his surroundings. He works for an "old German Jew" (9.4), he listens to the radio in English, and mountains are mentioned but never arrive. He might as well be anywhere.
The multiple settings, then, provide a steady stream of contrasts: urban-rural, past-present, grounded-disconnected. That they are so divergent, yet still reconciled by the reunion at the book's end, speaks to the power of those L's (language, love, literature) to transcend time, borders, and settings.