Why we love it: We get extremely excited when we hear about a new Maggie O’ Farrell novel. And This Must Be The Place lived up to all our expectations of the acclaimed writer, who with each novel becomes even more skilled at capturing the pitfalls and poignancy of modern life, marriage, separation and parenting.
In Ireland to collect his grandfather’s ashes, Brooklyn-born Daniel Sullivan literally stumbles upon former movie star Claudette Wells and her son Ari where they live in a tumbledown house so remote, you have to open 12 gates before you reach it. Claudette was formerly one of the world’s biggest movie stars, but she was stifled by fame and life with her Swedish filmmaker partner so that one day she simply took their son and disappeared. She became a recluse, hiding from the world, with the international media only speculating whether she was alive or dead.
Claudette becomes Daniel’s second wife and Daniel, divorced and increasingly removed from his own two children, moves to the remote farmhouse where he and Claudette have two more children. One day, on his way to work in Belfast, Daniel hears a radio show featuring a former lover who he learns is now deceased. This sends him on an odyssean journey to right the wrongs of his past.
But Claudette suspects him of more, and given his wife’s previous reputation as a ‘bolter’, Daniel should have known better. Now he will have to win her back. But after a reunion with his two children from the previous marriage followed by a devastating loss, Daniel sinks to new depths. Will he make the same mistakes of his past and lose the love of his life Claudette, as well as his two younger children, to this obsession with a ghost?
Spanning two continents, this story is about Daniel – his children, the grown up ones, Niall and Phoebe, and how he missed half their lives, and his new marriage, a stepchild and younger children. In Daniel, O’Farrell captures the utter sadness of divorce, separation from one’s children and the plight of many modern, blended families, so poignantly and vividly. While he is likeable in many ways and we truly feel for him, Daniel also frustrates us as he keeps making the same mistakes. When things start to go awry with Claudette, we could literally shake him. One time Daniel incredulously recollects his own past behaviour:
“Daniel had been sitting up, smoking, unshaven, unslept, and he was reading an old academic textbook that contained a paper by Nicola. He was ignoring Claudette, his wife, the living breathing woman in bed beside him. He was pretending he didn’t know she was awake because some conversations are too difficult for first thing in the morning, because he didn’t feel like having another dissection of his failings and shortcomings, because he was, in short, an idiot.”
This Must Be the Place is an intriguing novel of love, loss, and redemption. It encompasses those universal themes of fate, regret, and second chances, moving from past to present, from place to place, and featuring different characters’ points of view in a way that only a master stylist such as Farrell could get away with. In fact, O’Farrell’s meticulously observed descriptions of human behaviour and emotion transcend time and place. The novel features some stylistic innovation, with one chapter succinctly capturing a whole section of Claudette’s past simply by way of pictures and details of Claudette memorabilia. And as always, with O’Farrell, it’s simply a great story, beautifully told.
O’Farrell is the author of seven novels including, After You’d Gone, My Lover’s Lover, The Distance Between Us, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, The Hand That First Held Mine, winner of the 2010 Costa Award, Instructions for a Heatwave, shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Novel Award. Born in Northern Ireland, she now lives in Edinburgh and has three children.