New York, 1974 to the Early 21st Century
We don't just mean New York City, you know. New York State is a big place, and this book runs all over it.
Jules starts out in Underhill, a fictional New York suburb that she finds boring and generally nothing to be proud of. This sets her up to be ripe for yeaning for other places, and for romanticizing them when she encounters them.
Spirit-in-the-Woods is in Belknap, though, which is also a made-up town that looks like it pretty much only has the camp and the fictional Langton Hull Psychiatric Hospital. Belknap is a place outside of time for Jules and the other campers, and it has a woodsy setting to go with it. Curiously, the psychiatric hospital is also kind of timeless, since Dennis goes there for a while right in the middle of college and then picks up where he left off afterward.
Outside of Jules's home and the camp, most of the book takes place in New York City, though this is before "Manhattan would unimaginably be colonized by the rich" and during the "fading days of thinking you could do what you wanted out in the open in the city" (5.106). This is NYC in the 1970s, and most of the plot that happens in the city takes place either in the Wolfs' elaborate apartment building or in various tiny apartments the gang moves into after college.
Manhattan represents everything Jules wants in making friends with the Interestings. It has culture and pizazz, and it's all too predictable that when she finally gets to NYC on her own, she doesn't live within range of any of that.
We've mentioned that this story takes place between the 1970s and the early 2000s, but what does that really mean? Well, for starters it means that this book opens with Nixon and the Vietnam War, moseys on through the Reagan era, and ends up just a few years past September 11, 2001, when New York City and other places were attacked by terrorists.
Why is it that this book, which is really about the small details of the lives of a group of friends as they grow from teens to adults, rests on a background of some of the craziest political periods in history? For one thing, it shows us these political problems from a perspective we don't usually get to see—the individual human one. But on the flip side, it also shows us that while grand events take place, tiny daily lives march onward anyway, complete with jealousy, arguments, and failed careers.