BookBrowse Reviews This Must Be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell

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This Must Be the Place

A novel

by Maggie O'Farrell

This Must Be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell X
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2016, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2017, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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This portrait of a marriage's ups and downs is tender-hearted and fleshed out with believable characters.

Maggie O'Farrell's latest novel may be a multi-perspective and time-shifting narrative, but above all, it is a moving love story about the lives of a married couple, Dan and Claudette. When This Must Be The Place opens, Dan, albeit fondly, is quick to point out that his wife — and the mother of two of his children — is crazy. True or not, Claudette, who was once a famous movie star, now shuns the spotlight (see 'Beyond the Book'), insisting on living in a remote farmhouse in Ireland.

As happy as they appear to be, problems soon arise. Dan hears a voice from his past on the radio: the voice of a woman he once loved and for whose death he may have been responsible. When he decides to find out what happened to her and also reconnect with the children from his first marriage, everything changes. As O'Farrell moves from past to present and into the future lives of Dan and Claudette, an absorbing portrait of a relationship in crisis develops.

Never trite, never predictable and never shying away from the difficulties of life, love and loss, O'Farrell creates characters who are believable and sympathetic. Both Dan and Claudette have flaws that have brought them together but may also keep them apart.

Although the novel opens with chapters from Dan and then Claudette's perspective, other family and friends take up the role of storyteller and subsequent chapters are told from many different perspectives and different time periods. There is Dan's teenage daughter Phoebe, in 2010, struggling with the pressures of teenage body changes and peer pressure. There is her clever older brother Niall, in 1999, suffering from extremely painful eczema. There is Claudette's sister-in-law, in 2003, going to China to adopt a baby. At times the narrative also switches out of the straightforward prose form. Claudette's previous life and first marriage, for example, are illuminated through a series of illustrated entries from an auction catalogue. Her first husband's perspective is relayed in the form of an interview recording. Changing time frames and perspectives can sometimes make for a disconnected reading experience but in this case O'Farrell's choices enrich her story, bringing greater understanding of the motivations and concerns of her characters and adding layers of tension as the past is explained and the future unfolds.

This Must Be the Place certainly confirms, if it were ever needed, that O'Farrell is a highly accomplished novelist. Her dialogue is crisp and witty and her ability to give individual voices to so many narrators is to be greatly admired. While this is clearly a very clever novel, it is never consciously literary or contrived. The tone is light and the story sparkles with moments of great comedy: for example Claudette meets Dan while he is traveling around Ireland looking for the lost ashes of his dead grandfather, only to leave the urn by the roadside after helping her with a flat tire.

Tenderhearted and character-driven, This Must Be the Place is entertaining, thoughtful and wise. Because the fictional portraits seem so real, it is impossible not to become caught up in Dan and Claudette's lives and read eagerly – and anxiously - to see how their story will be resolved.

Reviewed by Kate Braithwaite

This review was originally published in September 2016, and has been updated for the May 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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