Book Review of “This must be the Place” by Maggie O’Farrell.
Daniel Sullivan is a bit of a mess; with more than his fair share of screwed up relationships, when he meets Claudette, it seems like things might take a different turn for once. That isn’t to say that Claudette, the woman who ran away from a successful film career, has any better of a track record, but certainly love can overcome any difficulties. However, since some people never seem to learn from their mistakes, when do you know if you should give them a second chance?
I’ve read all of O’Farrell’s novels to date, and so far, I’ve generally enjoyed her work, and in some cases, even enthralled (and you can read my overview of all her previous novels, here). O’Farrell really knows how to build characters, with interesting back-stories and then find fascinating situations for them. Often these situations surround some kind of relationship or another – be it romantic or familial, and sometimes, both. It is always obvious from her stories that she knows these characters down to their last freckles, and probably better than they know themselves. This also means that when O’Farrell reveals something that seems insignificant about any of them, she not only knows why that detail is important, but how it will play out in the end. O’Farrell’s characters in this novel are no less loved and complex than in her previous work, and in fact, I found the two main characters – Claudette and Daniel – to be captivating and among her best.
One of the other things that O’Farrell is a true master of is taking different timelines – usually two – and carefully inching them towards each other. With them in play, she works to meld them together so that at just the right time, the essential connection is made, which segues into a twisting climax that can bring tears to your eyes, if not take your breath away. In her previous novel, “Instructions for a Heat Wave,” O’Farrell was more ambitious with using only contemporary, parallel timelines, but with individual characters. While I generally enjoyed that book, I don’t think she succeeded in evoking the same emotional heights as she did with her two previous novels.
On the other hand, O’Farrell fills this novel with chapters from the viewpoint of several different characters, dated from 1989 through 2016, and set anywhere between California and France. Thankfully, most of the viewpoints are Daniel’s; most of the entries are from around 2010, and; a majority of the chapters takes place in Donegal, Ireland. These constancies make up the core of the action, with the other chapters scattered around them to give background or insights into the main protagonists by providing other viewpoints. The concept here is actually very creative, and in theory, this could have been very effective. Unfortunately, I don’t think that O’Farrell fully pulled this off, since instead, we got something that felt somewhat disjointed. I found it hard to pinpoint a real climax here, and with that, I found it difficult to understand the motivations behind some of the actions and several of the reactions of the characters. This made me feel disconnected from the characters, which neutralized the emotional impact of the book overall.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy this book entirely. In fact, I found the idea behind story compelling and the characters fascinating (particularly Claudette), and O’Farrell’s writing style as vivid as usual. I also particularly enjoyed O’Farrell’s descriptions of Donegal and the house where Claudette and Daniel lived, which she succeeded in evoking dramatic pictures in my mind. That said, I think this is actually one of her weaker novels, and although I still recommend it to O’Farrell’s fans, I can only give it three and a half stars out of five.
“This Must be the Place” by Maggie O’Farrell, is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), the website eBooks.com, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.