Maggie O’Farrell is an author over whom I have a strange feeling of possessiveness – her debut novel After You’d Gone was one of the first ‘adult’ novels I ever read, so her work has the feeling of a personal landmark for me. O’Farrell has a real gift for exploring human emotion but in particular how people can vanish. In After You’d Gone, a woman is consumed by grief after a relationship suddenly ends. In My Lover’s Lover, Lily is haunted by her new partner’s former relationship. In The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which many regard as O’Farrell’s finest work, a woman discovers a previously unknown great aunt who has spent the past half century in an institution. Then in Instructions For A Heatwave, a respectable married man abruptly disappears, leaving his family searching for clues. In This Must Be The Place, her apparent central character is Claudette Wells, a film star who pulled a Houdini from the celebrity life and chose to become a recluse, but in reality the focus is more on her husband Daniel and it is to him that the novel’s opening words ‘There is a man and the man is me’ belong. With this novel, O’Farrell is taking us through the looking glass – rather than seeing through the eyes of the person longing for a return, we are now on the side of the escapees. Will they they find their way home? Will it be open to them when they do?
There were a few reasons why this novel failed to chime with me in the way that O’Farrell’s novels typically do. The main factor was Daniel. He irritated me by the opening pages and by the finale I practically loathed him. First of all, he is an absentee parent and a repeat offender at that. His academic pretentiousness also irritated. His callous disregard for the women in his life was a recurring theme throughout the story. While I could see that the reader was intended to believe in the sincerity of his devotion towards Claudette, it felt like a stretch for me. His first wife never gets any character exploration – not even a first name – other than the assurance that she is awful. This was not the sign of a ringing character recommendation for me. For a woman to be so keen to keep her ex-husband from their two shared children after a marriage of approximately ten years span implies to me some rather edgy behaviour on the behalf of Mr Daniel. Perhaps my own experience with parental absenteeism causes me to look at that one with the hairy eyeball – I have heard people (and sorry, but it is mainly men) spouting excuses on why they have failed to maintain contact and speaking from the child perspective, the fact is that there is no excuse. Another point that Farrell fails to explore is that Daniel is living off-grid with an apparently wealthy former film star yet his first two children apparently receive no financial support. The idea that someone would go to such extreme lengths to escape the oppressive trappings of a celebrity lifestyle only to take up with a low-life like Daniel is really quite depressing.
Another aspect of the novel which I found frustrating was just how many competing plot lines had been included. O’Farrell’s work does typically include a well-defined supporting cast with individually interesting back stories, but here it felt that she had gone a little overboard. I felt the same way in The Distance Between Us, which was one of O’Farrell’s more forgotten novels. Like an overstuffed sandwich, once the reader bites in, some parts of the filling will inevitably fall out. What are we to make of Rosalind, the diplomat’s wife at a crossroads? Or the otherwise unexplored revelation that Daniel’s mother had lost her one chance at true love? Did we really get the truth of what became of Nicola Janks? What was the point of Lenny? Supporting characters have long been one of O’Farrell’s strengths but here it is hard to tell which characters are ‘main’ and which to be ignored. They are almost all left unresolved by the novel’s close and the result is a rather messy cacophony that feels better suited to a short story anthology. I did wonder if she was aiming for a similar feel to A Visit From The Goon Squad, with an experimental chapter on Claudette Wells memorabilia, featuring grainy photographs of various ‘artefacts’ supposedly purloined by an assistant.
O’Farrell’s writing is as pitch perfect as ever here – she has a fantastic ear for dialogue. The scene where Daniel meets his two estranged children in a diner was fantastic in its depiction of polite awkwardness. The dermatology clinic episode was fascinating, particularly since this is one of those snapshots from O’Farrell’s own life, given that her own daughter suffers from the same condition as Niall. Another wonderful chapter was the one centred around the woman trying to soothe her newly-adopted child – a moment beautifully caught. My issue was with plot rather than execution. I failed to connect with Claudette – we only seem to catch her in glimpses, she is reclusive even to the reader. Her difficult personality may have been intended to make her seem interesting but to me she appeared more as self-indulgent. The levels she had gone to get off the grid were extreme, but then somehow she still travelled to Paris around four times a year – so she had to get her brother to call her lawyer, her husband dealt with her son’s education but international travel including presumably passport control were fine. It didn’t quite add up.
I enjoyed This Must Be The Place as a return trip to the landscape of O’Farrell’s imagination, and there were certain characters who I liked more than others. Ari might have come across as pretentious as a seventeen year-old, but then who wasn’t at that age – he was basically a nice lad who had managed to successfully roll with the punches through the highly chaotic childhood which had come his way courtesy of his mother. Lucas and his wife projected a warmth not seen in most of those in the foreground. This Must Be The Place is a book that I worked very hard trying to like and ultimately I just could not manage it. The novel’s conclusion seemed to indicate a homecoming but by the end, I was not invested enough in either Claudette or Daniel to feel a particular interest in their final fate. Maggie O’Farrell will always be one of my all-time favourite authors, but alas this was not the book for me.
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Published by Hachette UK on May 17th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, General
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