This Must Be the Place is so well put together, so gentle and surprising, it makes me kick myself that I don't pick up debut novels more often. The tone is funny and generous youthful and hip without the trendy bite. Kate Racculia has put together an interesting mix of themes. Meditations on family, identity, romance, and creativity swirl around a compelling set of relationships, many of which come about by proximity rather than by design. The boarding house is a great setting in which to explore the characters, to work through struggles of love and rattle the skeletons in the closet. The Darby-Jones inhabitants make up a multi-generational ensemble, and I can imagine mothers and teenage daughters alike relating to the relationships played out here. Romance is dealt with, but with a light touch (no genre-bound steaminess to cringe over). Mona gives her fifteen-year old daughter Oneida advice about how to seek connections, to make her way through a social world where she always feels like a "freak." "There were plenty of boring people in my class, too," Mona says, "But there were a few worthy souls. You just have to figure out how to recognize each other."
Art is the medium through which "worthy souls" find each other in this novel. There are artists of all descriptions a photographer, a baker, a movie special-effects maker (see sidebar), an exhuberant forger, a musician, and a teenage surrealist. All are engaged in the struggle of making a creative life, and all, not just the teenager who pretends to be a bully when he's really a sensitive guy, are engaged in the task of what modernists called "life-creation." The characters choose to build their own habitats, at the same time they have eyes to see beauty in the world and in their relationships. They take an active part in shaping where they will go next. Racculia makes some witty asides about the difficulty of making an artistic life. One character, Arthur Rook, actually majored in art at a public university, but he had a lousy time, because the kids who got A's were the ones "who thought to juxtapose the sacred, the profane and the commercial" by painting four-letter words over portraits of Mickey Mouse. Arthur wants to do something more subtle, and he's caught between a rock and a hard place. His working-class family is skeptical about the whole enterprise of art: "They wouldn't even consider helping pay for a private art education, something Arthur's father referred to as 'setting a pile of money on fire and trying to piss it out.'" Racculia's optimistic verve in this novel illustrates her belief in the beauty of art and its essential importance.
The novel's setting gives another sign that the artistic goals at stake are off the beaten path the story deliberately leaves the pressure-cooker pop culture landscape of Los Angeles to seek something else. I have to confess that I have a regional affiliation with This Must Be The Place I live in the locale described, a rural corner of upstate New York where the houses are old and history lies thick on the ground. I see that Kate Racculia grew up in Syracuse, which makes sense - in the novel, Syracuse is the city in the middle of nowhere that the characters go to when they need a hospital. Arthur describes his first impression of Upstate when he arrives in Ruby Falls from L.A., "It was too atmospheric to have occurred naturally: the shadows too deep, the clouds calculated, too puffy, and too perfectly slate-gray. The roadside forest was aggressively bucolic out the window of his taxi." If you live in upstate New York or plan to visit, This Must Be the Place is a 'must read'; but even if you're not, the novel will give you something joyful and meditative to relax into.
This review was originally published in August 2010, and has been updated for the July 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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