I love Maggie O’Farrell, and I wanted to love this book. Ultimately, it didn’t move me as much as Instructions for a Heatwave or her other novels, even though critics might feel it’s a stronger book.
This Must Be the Place tells the story of one complicated family over many years – one couple really, Daniel and Claudette. To tell their story, we get to know their prior relationships, and even their parents’ prior relationships. Daniel and Claudette have each been married and had children before they meet each other. The novel jumps around chronologically quite a bit, and reminded me at times of Kate Atkinson’s excellent A God in Ruins. At first I had to take a few notes so I could remember who met who in what year and who had which kids, but after a while it all became clear.
Daniel is a particularly endearing character, and the story rises and falls with him. Claudette is much more difficult to understand. We know she’s a recluse; and possibly a bit unstable. The story works when Daniel leaves the picture, but it’s always much better when he comes back. I appreciated that O’Farrell keeps him from being perfect all the time.
As with her previous books, I loved the richness of O’Farrell’s prose, and I could read her for hours on end. This is a book that really focuses on character development and family relationships. At times I felt she told this story from the perspective of a few too many characters (I seem to be saying that about a lot of books lately) but that wasn’t my main issue with the book.
My main issue – and I don’t want to tell you too much, so I will keep it general – is with a plot-line that relates to abortion. Obviously a writer can write about abortion any way she chooses, but the way this plot-line was handled felt like it was written by the pro-life movement. As a story-line it didn’t feel well-developed to me; instead I felt like I was being hammered with the idea that abortion can only be a horrible, life-ending mistake rather than a decision a rational person might make. Maybe that isn’t what O’Farrell is trying to say but it felt that way to me, and it colored my view of the rest of the book. Sorry I can’t be more specific without telling you what happens in the story.
I haven’t seen this issue discussed in any other reviews, so either (1) no one wants to say it, (2) I’m overreacting, or (3) I’m flat out wrong. Ms. O’Farrell and I can agree to disagree, of course, but this element of the plot had a major impact on everything else that happens in Daniel’s life, and therefore my reaction to it impacted my read of the entire book.
Without this particular issue, I think I would have enjoyed this book but still not been as moved by it. I did like Daniel and Claudette and the story of their marriage – but I remember being blown away by the family in Heatwave, and I didn’t have that reaction here. With this book, it was more like, I was glad I met them.