Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1816
Author: Maggie O’Farrell (b. 1972)
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (New York). 400 pp.
Type of work: Novel
Locales: Donegal, Ireland; San Francisco, California; London, England; Brooklyn, New York
In This Must Be the Place, author Maggie O’Farrell takes readers on a meandering trip through time to understand the complications of protagonist Daniel Sullivan’s life. Conflicted relationships with the people he loves lead to choices that may change his life in ways he could never have imagined.
Daniel Sullivan, a linguistics professorCourtesy of Knopf
Teresa Sullivan, his mother
Phoebe Sullivan, his oldest daughter
Niall Sullivan, his oldest son
Nicola Janks, his first true love
Claudette Wells, his second wife, a reclusive former film star
Lucas Wells, Claudette’s brother
Maeve, Lucas’s wife
Timou Lindstrom, Claudette’s first love, a film director
Ari Lefevre Lindstrom Wells Sullivan, Claudette’s son with Timou
Daniel Sullivan and Claudette Wells are a fairly unlikely couple. Daniel is a linguist who teaches occasional college seminars; Claudette is a retired film star who avoids the public. Daniel’s first marriage ended in divorce after his wife had an affair, and he lost custody of his children as a result of her machinations. Claudette’s first relationship ended when she fled from her overbearing lover and the public spotlight, taking her young son, Ari, away from his father, Timou Lindstrom. Daniel’s past is peppered with drug use, casual affairs, and problematic family relationships. Claudette’s past includes fame, fortune, and glamour. Despite these differences, Daniel and Claudette share some similarities: they both love their children, they are both insecure in relationships, and they love each other regardless of the odds.
Since their marriage seems strong, it is surprising when Daniel makes the choice to pursue information about one of his past relationships without discussing the decision with his wife. For Daniel, letting Claudette into that part of his life would change her feelings about him. For Claudette, being left out of the details will test her security in the marriage and in her own sense of self.
O’Farrell challenges the motivations of these characters through one of the most noticeably unique aspects of the novel, which is its multiple narrative viewpoints. Though Daniel Sullivan and Claudette Wells are clearly the main characters in the novel, the book is broken into varied sections that share the viewpoints of not just these two but also many of the other characters who people their lives. The contributions of the other characters skillfully illustrate aspects of Daniel and Claudette that the two cannot perceive in themselves, a technique that enables O’Farrell to present protagonists who are more sympathetic and believable for being indelibly flawed, as real people often are.
The structure of the novel is built around the musings and remembrances of the narrating characters. As such, the book does not follow a strict chronological pattern, often jumping twenty or thirty years through time in one individual person’s narrative. For instance, Teresa Sullivan, Daniel’s mother, is the narrator of a chapter about two-thirds of the way through the book. In this chapter, Teresa is introduced lying on her deathbed and reliving a moment from her youth, one in which she met the man who would consume her thoughts and her heart for her whole life, although he was not the man she married. Teresa’s story illustrates a mother’s unconditional love for a child, but it does not contribute much beyond that to Daniel’s story. It is more important for its revelation of yet another character who has struggled with fidelity and has made a difficult choice. Another chapter is narrated by Phoebe, Daniel’s oldest daughter, a high school junior whose father has just reentered her life. As she relates this meeting, her mind wanders back to her childhood before her father left, and an omniscient narrator interrupts her musings to provide a flash-forward regarding the father-daughter relationship to come. This jump forward in time serves as a subtle foreshadowing of what will happen with Daniel’s second marriage, but it will only be caught if the reader is paying close attention. There are elusive snippets of information such as this scattered throughout the novel.
The multiple narratives and nonchronological timeline challenge readers to pay close attention to the thematic ideas spread throughout the book. Fidelity is one of those major thematic issues. It is introduced early as Daniel recollects his first marriage and his wife’s affair, which ended the relationship. Daniel unreservedly relates that he was involved in several sexual relationships during the divorce proceedings. At the point in his life when the book begins, years into his second marriage, however, he seems to recognize the trivial nature of those affairs. As readers follow Daniel’s life, they are exposed to his almost casual turns to sex to cover up insecurities or hurts. The destruction wreaked in his life by those instances culminates in his realization that Claudette’s insecurities regarding faithfulness and his own inability to communicate honestly may have undermined a marriage that truly means something to him. Claudette’s connection with infidelity is more convoluted. As readers follow the meandering paths of her life, her former lover’s faithfulness is questioned, and her own insecurity is brought to light when she doubts Daniel’s motives for pursuing an old friend, suspecting immediately that he is pursuing another woman. The relationship between these two characters comes to a climax with this conflict. Daniel’s mother’s story also touches on the issue of fidelity, as readers are told about the man she has loved from afar all of her life, an emotional affair that never resulted in a sexual consummation.
Other themes that run through the novel include family relationships and loss. These two themes can be seen in many of O’Farrell’s other books, but she introduces slight twists on the themes to make this novel stand out. For instance, though many of her works center on sisterly bonds, she steps out of that familiar territory in this book to showcase the loving link between Claudette and her brother, Lucas, instead. She also stresses brother-sister relationships with Daniel’s children. His first two children are Phoebe and her brother, Niall, and his second family consists of his children with Claudette. The older two children’s close relationship is revealed in chapters narrated by each of them; in her chapter, Phoebe repeatedly tells readers, “My brother is the coolest person in the world.” Parent-child relationships are also central to the novel, explored through Daniel’s glowing love for his children, Claudette’s clear adoration of her children, and Teresa’s “pure, animal avalanche of feeling” for her son. These familial ties are also associated with the losses. Daniel’s losses include his separation from his older children, the death of his mother, and abandoned friendships and lovers. Claudette’s loss of herself takes the story in a different direction.
Loneliness is another central experience for many of the characters. Phoebe reveals of Niall, “My brother smells of hard work. My brother smells of intelligence, of all-nighters, of education, of dedication and sometimes, I think, loneliness.” Later in the novel, as Daniel recalls one of his first meetings with Claudette, he comments, “I caught wind suddenly, and for the first time, of her keen isolation, the bravery it must take for her to be there, alone with the boy.” Other instances of loneliness that stand out in the novel are found in the side stories of Teresa Sullivan’s unfulfilled love affair and of Lucas and Maeve’s infertility problems, two narratives that add a layer of complexity to the development of Daniel and Claudette’s characterizations as well.
Outside of the characterization and thematic intrigues,This Must Be the Place also reflects on the complexity of language and the ways people relate to each other through words. One way this is seen is through Daniel’s very identity. As a linguist, Daniel’s fascination with language comes across early in the novel when he travels to give a lecture on “pidgins and creoles, based around a single sentence,” and he reveals that missing the lecture will leave “a group of undergraduates who will never be enlightened as to the fascinating, complex linguistic genealogy of the sentence: ‘Him thief she mango.’” Later in the book, Ari’s difficulties with stuttering bring to light the frustrations experienced by a child who cannot clearly express himself. It is Daniel’s patience and understanding of her son’s problem that draws Claudette to him.
One issue that might bother a certain audience is a casual reference to tobacco and drug use. One of Claudette’s main vices, according to Daniel, is smoking. She carelessly smokes throughout the novel, even in the scenes set in 2010, when smoking would be known to be unhealthy. Daniel himself smokes as well, but his habit is, in 2010 at least, carefully controlled with a limitation of three cigarettes per day, smoked away from the children. More problematic is the almost constant reference to drug use by a younger Daniel and his friends Todd, Suki, and Nicola. While roommates in graduate school, Daniel, Todd, and Suki imbibe a variety of pharmaceuticals, seemingly without repercussion. A potential overdose by Nicola, Daniel’s lover at the time, does not stop them from casually using drugs to overcome boredom or to compensate for a lack in their lives. This casual drug use by the of-age adults in the novel is tempered by an instance of peer pressure in which Phoebe decides to stand up for herself and walk away from a popular group of teens who are imbibing under the bleachers at their school.
Reviews of This Must Be the Place were mixed but generally positive. Poornima Apte’s review for Booklist lauded the “flawless language” while cautioning that the “chorus of voices and constant time-frame switching occasionally threaten the clarity of the narrative.” The reviewer for Kirkus Review noted that the characters “all have a magnetic star quality,” adding, “The scenario is glamorous, the writing is stylish, the globe-trotting almost dizzying, but there’s a satisfying core of untampered feeling as well.” A complex and intriguing novel, This Must Be the Place will challenge readers to question their own motivations and relationships.
- Apte, Poornima. Review of This Must Be the Place, by Maggie O’Farrell. Booklist, 1 June 2016, pp. 45–46.
- Graver, Elizabeth. “In Maggie O’Farrell’s New Novel, a Film Star Flees the Fame Game.” Review of This Must Be the Place, by Maggie O’Farrell. The New York Times, 5 Aug. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/books/review/maggie-ofarrell-this-must-be-the-place.html. Accessed 17 Feb. 2017.
- Hoffert, Barbara. Review of This Must Be the Place, by Maggie O’Farrell. Library Journal, 15 Feb. 2016, p. 73.
- Review of This Must Be the Place, by Maggie O’Farrell. Kirkus Reviews, 15 May 2016, pp. 30–31.