A novel about a reclusive ex-film star may sound like it will focus on sensational glamour rather than an emotionally-effective story, but “This Must Be the Place” is engrossing and extremely moving. Maggie O'Farrell creates a woman named Claudette who walks away from her famous director husband and a successful acting career to live in the remotest possible Ireland retreat and weaves her tale into the stories of many other fascinating characters. Most notably it charts her relationship with Daniel who deals with the complicated family he had with his first wife, an unresolved secret from his past and a growing substance abuse problem. Each chapter focuses on a specific character related to this couple. It leapfrogs back and forth through time to form impressions of their dramatic and tumultuous lives. The cumulative effect of this very readable novel is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the way chance and coincidence influence the most important decisions of our lives.
O'Farrell has a fascinating way of mapping out the lives of her characters in this novel. Each chapter is sub-headed by a name, year and location so you know with certainty where you are, but only through the course of the narrative do you understand why this point matters so much. The focus varies from stories about Daniel’s son Niall’s painful struggles with a severe eczema condition at a special dermatological clinic to Claudette’s sister-in-law Maeve’s journey to China to adopt a daughter. Through these fascinating individual stories we gain impressions of what’s happening in Daniel and Claudette’s lives as well. My only quibble is I wish the author had included a section on Daniel’s first wife rather than so many peripheral characters towards the end. It felt like she was the only major character that remained sketchily drawn where the others were fully rounded. Multiple sections are told from Daniel’s point of view as he seems to have the most trouble finding where he really belongs. However, the only section which focuses on Claudette’s perspective is narrated in the second person so, although we’re entirely with her, we remain outside her consciousness. This distancing effect from her character is mirrored in another section where we’re given photographs of vital objects from her film career that are being auctioned, but which cleverly tell the story of her relationship with the cerebral Scandinavian film director Timou.
I think people who enjoy Anne Tyler’s books would also really appreciate this novel. O'Farrell has a similar way of realistically portraying the quirks, humour and heartache of family life. She also touches upon the complex way we come to define ourselves through the perspectives of others. In particular, she beautifully describes the way those who love us see us in an idealistic light which in turn reinforces our own self confidence: “What redemption there is in being loved: we are always our best selves when loved by another.” The story meaningfully shows how complex relationships can be and that we’ll inevitably follow lots of indirect paths in life, but how powerfully changed we are when honest connections are made. “This Must Be the Place” is a skilfully written novel with a lot of heart.