This book made me cry—ugly cry—and the truth is I rarely cry when I read a novel. In fact, I can remember only one other book in the past five years that’s made me cry this hard.
Paradoxically, what first drew me into This Must Be the Place was its humor—it has plenty—particularly, the self-deprecating way Daniel Sullivan, one of the main characters, describes his often-reclusive life with Claudette Wells. Daniel (a linguist with a complicated past) and Claudette (an actress who has purposefully disappeared from the public eye) fall in love on a country road in Ireland, brought together by… well, I don’t want to get ahead of myself and spoil the story. We as readers find out about their meeting well before we find out about some things but way later than we find out about others (which again I don’t want to reveal for fear of spoiling the story).
If it seems like I’m being mysterious and circuitous, it’s because I am, as is O’Farrell’s unique story telling technique. This Must Be the Place is nonlinear, spanning and jumping back and forth and around almost seventy years, and is told through many, many points of view. With Daniel and Claudette as the two main voices, we also hear their story (and other secondary stories) from the perspectives of their children, siblings, friends, lovers, mothers, and assorted others, told in first-person, second-person, and third-person voices, depending on the character… in many settings, including Ireland, San Francisco, Brooklyn, China, France, The UK, Sweden, and Bolivia.
I have to admit, at first it was a lot to keep track of—there were more than a few moments when I was very confused, particularly when I wasn’t sure why O’Farrell had chosen some particular character to tell some particular aspect of the story at some particular time—but I have a soft spot for books that play with the conventionality of time. And, further, over time her purpose became clear and easy to follow. What became even clearer and quite remarkable was O’Farrell’s ability to keenly capture and describe universal relationships and feelings.
I grip the bench in something close to terror, wanting to close my eyes but not being able to, wondering, as she stands there, looking toward the fountain, if I am witnessing the beginning of the end, if this is it, the tipping point we all dread. Am I living through the moment when all the tiny lights begin to be extinguished, when her love for me begins to falter, shrink, lose ground? I have been through the demise of enough relationships to know such moments arise, but would I know how to recognize it when it came? Is this it? What have I done?
Which brings me full circle to the crying. I figured it was only because there was something I could really relate to in what O’Farrell was saying about marriage and relationships… that her words made me acutely aware of something I couldn’t put into words myself. But when I thought about it more deeply, I realized that it wasn’t the (only) reason I cried. It was the universality of Daniel and Claudette’s relationship, of all the feelings O’Farrell describes… that we have all either felt this way or can understand what it is to feel this way—about love, parenthood, life, and ultimately choosing the paths we choose.
In a 2014 article in the New Yorker Pelagia Horgan said, “talking about what makes us cry [in books] is also a way of talking about ourselves. With each way of talking—sentimental, sensational, aesthetic—we say something different: that we’re kindhearted and empathetic, or passionate and romantic, or sensitive to beauty and the pleasures of art.”
I easily could have reviewed this book because of O’Farrell’s wonderful writing, her unique storytelling techniques, or even her vivid descriptions of settings and characters painted so realistically. Because as complicated (and at times convoluted) as This Must Be the Place is to read, O’Farrell makes that human-to-human connection quite simple—the possibility of talking about ourselves, of seeing something about ourselves in the words she’s written.
It’s about the discovery of something about ourselves that keeps us reading. It’s what made me cry and what ultimately made me love this novel: how it allowed me to see things about myself. To help discern the things that are important and meaningful to me in life. And isn’t that something we all want to get out of the novels we read?
Have you read This Must Be the Place? We’d love to hear what you think!
Link to buy This Must Be the Place at your local independent bookstore (we love them!) or at Indiebound by clicking here.