The title of this book seems rather ironic, considering how This Must Be the Place tends to make the reader feel unmoored at every turn. The story begins with a first-person account of a man who is standing at the back door of his house in rural Ireland, rolling a cigarette, when he thinks he spots an intruder. (The house is very isolated, half a mile and 12 gates away from the nearest road.) We learn that the man is named Daniel and that his wife is an Oscar-winning actress who pulled one hell of a disappearing act; she makes Garbo look like Kim Kardashian by comparison. Has she finally been discovered?
After that set-up, Chapter Two drops us 20 years into the past, when the actress, Claudette, is just getting started, meeting the Swedish director who will become her collaborator and lover. There are 28 chapters in the book, and they move through time and space—one moment you’re in Fremont, California in 2010, the next you’re whisked away to Scotland in 1986, then it’s off to Dalsland, Sweden* in 2014 and Chengdu, China in 2003. Chapters are told from different points of view; besides Daniel and Claudette, there are also their children (both have them from previous relationships, as well as a couple of their own), various relatives and friends, and in one case even a tourist whom we haven’t seen before and won’t encounter again. It can be highly disorienting, and often left me flipping back through the book: “Now, who was Niall again?” I finally approached it more as a book of linked short stories, reading a couple of them each evening over the course of a couple of weeks.
O’Farrell writes beautiful prose, with a lot of empathy and insight about families and the way they are made and un-made. But in the end, I always felt at a bit of a remove, making This Must Be the Place a book I admired instead of adored.
* Footnote: my mom grew up in the province of Dalsland and it’s a rather sparsely populated place, so I was surprised and delighted to see that a chapter had been set there. Unfortunately, it’s one of the briefest chapters in the book and takes the form of an interview transcript between a journalist and Claudette’s former partner, so there isn’t a lot of local color on offer. We do hear the reporter describe it as “the middle of nowhere,” which sounds about right.