When I read the chapter in our next online class together, I too noticed how distant the writing felt. My take-away was an almost-intellectual sorrow, a wistfulness, rather than any strong emotion.
Look around the room where you’re sitting right now. If it’s your home or office or car, it’ll probably reflect something about you: your choices made manifest in color, shape, texture; in photographs or art; in order or disarray; in music choices and food; even in the temperature you’re most comfortable at.
Outer Container Comes First
Most writing classes discuss setting, the outer container. Setting is revealed through the five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch (texture and temperature), and smell. Readers want to immediately know the time of day or night, where we are in a room or garden or other specific location, how the light falls on an object or a wall or someone's arm, what smells and sounds surround us.
Imagine a play set on a blank stage--no backdrop, no furniture, no atmosphere. OK, maybe nothing is an atmosphere, but only if the actors are very talented and can create something from that nothing. It's much easier for the audience to perceive, say, an 1850s interior farmhouse if there are furnishings and a woodstove and windows with eyelet curtains.
Same in your story. Outer container is shown via your surroundings, what your narrator notices. It's transmitted to a reader most easily via the five senses: smell, sound, taste, touch, sight. And it's best done without interpretation, no qualifiers, nobody telling us what the sights mean.