Few contemporary writers equal Maggie O’Farrell’s gift for combining intricate, engrossing plots with full-bodied characterizations. From “After You’d Gone” (2001) through “Instructions for a Heatwave” (2013), her novels feature tantalizing mysteries that keep us engrossed with the most basic storytelling imperative: the need to find out what happened and why.
Although many books with that kind of propulsive energy vanish from memory once the last page is turned, O’Farrell’s complicated men, women and children stay with us. The uncommon dilemmas she invents make for exciting fiction, but they also strike common human chords.
“This Must Be the Place” matches its predecessors for sheer reading pleasure and engagement, but this time O’Farrell resolves the initial mystery fairly quickly. She concentrates instead on the ripple effect of a youthful error committed by Daniel Sullivan.
The narrative shuffles together multiple points of view ranging across four decades to paint a portrait of a man who sees his life as “a series of elisions, cover-ups, dropped stitches.” He confesses, “To all appearances, I am a husband, a father, a teacher, a citizen, but when tilted toward the light I become a deserter, a sham, a killer, a thief.”
Daniel will encounter people who agree with this bitter assessment, and others who temper it, but the person whose judgment he most fears is his wife.
When they met, 10 years earlier, Irish-American Daniel was trying to distract himself from an ugly divorce with a quixotic mission to collect his grandfather’s ashes from the old country. He didn’t even recognize the woman stranded with a flat tire as Oscar-winning movie star Claudette Wells, who famously disappeared at the peak of her career. They are now married and have two children, but Claudette remains so violently protective of her privacy that Daniel fears she will never forgive anything she perceives as a violation of her trust.
And he has things to hide. Claudette knows about the son and daughter his vengeful ex has prevented him from seeing, and she cautiously supports his decision to reunite with them in California, but she’s suspicious it is not the real motive for his detour from his father’s 90th birthday party in Brooklyn. She’s right to be suspicious.
O’Farrell expertly unravels the tangled threads that lead her protagonists to a wrenching confrontation that quite probably will destroy their marriage. This possibility is all the more painful because she has surrounded them with a richly colored supporting cast who would also suffer. Problematic parents, vulnerable children, fond but critical siblings — all serve as observers of Claudette’s and Daniel’s dramas and remind us that our most profound bonds are forged in the crucible of the family.
Yet even within that intimate space, do we ever really know another person? A heartbreaking chapter about Daniel’s beloved mother reveals a tragic secret, kept until death, at the heart of a seemingly ordinary existence. Another long-delayed discovery sends an Englishwoman to Bolivia to give Daniel the piece of advice that just might repair his life. Both stories underscore O’Farrell’s principal theme: the struggle to locate our true selves amid the disorderly mess of our lives.
Daniel and Claudette’s daughter voices a sentiment that troubles many of these characters when she asks her mother whether she will ever regain the “sense of being inside your life, not outside it.” “Probably not,” is Claudette’s typically unsparing response. “What you’re describing comes of growing up.”
But O’Farrell is too compassionate an artist to let this assessment stand alone. A hopeful though provisional final exchange suggests that there might be a future for her battered husband and wife. “This Must Be the Place” is better summed up by Daniel’s hard-won affirmation: “We are always our best selves when loved by another.”
“This Must Be the Place” by Maggie O’Farrell (382 pages; Knopf; $26.95)