This Must Be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell: book review

This Must Be The Place by Maggie O'Farrell

Overview: Daniel has many secrets and tragedies in his life that all unspool over the course of this expansive novel. The fact that his second wife is a famous actress who disappeared off the face of the earth years before feels like one of the more minor elements of his life story. We see kids born and then grown into teenagers. We observe scenes on multiple continents. The timeline is truly unlimited, but the pieces do all snap together in the end. Overall: 4

Characters: 4 Daniel is a compelling character even as he does default back to being an absolute mess at any sign of adversity. He's suffered many losses in life, but he's also experienced beautiful things. He trained as a linguist, and in his younger adult life, he marries and has kids in California. Then, after a divorce, he's cut off from his family and starts over in Ireland on a strange quest that turns into meeting the true love of his life – Claudette, the escaped actress. Daniel does grow and change over the course of the novel and is left in a somewhat better place than he's found, but we do discover that Daniel's ups and downs are quite cyclical. 

Claudette is given many chapters of her own at the beginning of the book as we learn about her experience accidentally becoming an actress, attaching herself to a famous director, and growing a deep distaste of the Hollywood scene. She's eccentric and fine with being alone if it means things can be done her way. She can be quick to go cold and a bit flighty, but she's also strong and firm in her views. She doesn't tolerate anything less than she deserves and is interesting to follow as she grows up and matures. 

The children also come into their own significantly over the large timespan of the novel. The children that start as babies in the introductory chapter end the novel as fully formed people. There are almost too many children to get into the nuances of their specific growth over the novel in this space, but each child gets to be their own person by the end, and there is a lot here about the power of family being the people you choose to stand by, not just who you're blood related to. 

Plot: 4 It's hard to explain the plot without spoiling the book, and it's also difficult because this keeps up Maggie O'Farrell's pension for never telling a linear story. While this ultimately comes together to create an incredibly deep, nuanced portrait of these people, it can be disorienting in the moment as we jump through time or are thrown into a random character's head for the first time without context. Some chapters feel almost like short stories collected from the world rather than part of the novel itself. This method of unspooling the plot is quite pretty at the end, but it can be tedious and, at times, overwhelming to consume. I always read O'Farrell's books quite slowly for this reason. She requires a major commitment from the reader to unlock the beauty of the novel. 

Writing: 4 Having read two of O'Farrell's books back to back, it's remarkable how similar they are, even with one focusing on a woman in her early thirties and the other focusing on a man in mid-life having a bit of a crisis. Both take characters who've seen better days and been through some major traumas and unwind their pasts like a ribbon to make sense of their experiences. I found that there were certain highly specific scenes and plot points that were repeated between the two books as well, manifesting in slightly different ways. There was a weird sense of deja vu. For instance, a character aiding another character after someone's hand gets dangerously cut open appears as a love spark in both novels.

One thing that I noticed in This Might Be The Place that either didn't appear in or I didn't notice in After You'd Gone are the heaps of telling required to fill gaps created by the highly jumpy timeline. This happens more and more as the book goes on and we start taking bigger jumps forward from where the novel starts rather than going backwards. I think this is a unique issue to this book as it aims to intimately follow a much larger cast of characters both forwards and backwards whereas After You'd Gone mostly focuses on three generations of the family's women and goes back in time from the opening scene, which keeps the facts more orderly. 

Towards the end of This Must Be the Place when we plunge 5 or 6 years into the future, O'Farrell has to backfill to account for events that have unfolded that we didn't see for some reason. She tries to integrate this elegantly, starting with the character getting stared at for too long or exploring an unfamiliar room to the reader, but then whoever is narrating the chapter has to jump in and say, "well all these things happened so now I'm here," and it just fully takes you out of the scene and experience of that vignette. Since this mostly happened at the end, it makes me wonder if these kind of big deal plot points that get backfilled are not given their own chapters because of word count restraints. Given the style of the novel overall, these moments just stand out more. We get so many random details that the ones we don't get that feel even more consequential than what we do start to shake the integrity of the novel overall.

I still have such mixed feelings about O'Farrell's books. They take forever for me to get through and can often feel tedious in the moment, but I also understand why they're so popular, and for some reason, I keep picking them up. You rarely in literature today get such a truly expansive picture, and she's quite skilled at weaving together disjointed timelines, and that keeps me coming back. But it's also a lot.

More From This Author...

After You'd Gone review

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Perfume and Pain review

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