This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell

Summary from Goodreads:

Meet Daniel Sullivan, a man with a complicated life. A New Yorker living in the wilds of Ireland, he has children he never sees in California, a father he loathes in Brooklyn and a wife, Claudette, who is a reclusive ex-film star given to shooting at anyone who ventures up their driveway. He is also about to find out something about a woman he lost touch with twenty years ago, and this discovery will send him off-course, far away from wife and home. Will his love for Claudette be enough to bring him back? Maggie O’Farrell’s seventh novel is a dazzling, intimate epic about who we leave behind and who we become as we search for our place in the world.

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about this book, so hopefully writing this review will help me organise my thoughts. After reading the first two chapters of this book, I was intrigued by the story and decided to commit to finishing it, but I wasn’t totally hooked. By chapter four, I was quite enjoying the reading experience. At around page 200 I was engrossed in the story, but towards the end I found myself losing interest rapidly. Even now I don’t really know where I stand.

First, the good:

  1. Maggie O’Farrell is a quirky and engaging writer with a particular knack for creating complex, believable characters. She manages her large cast of characters effortlessly, moving between points of view, but returning regularly to the central couple, American linguist Daniel Sullivan and retired, reclusive French-English movie star Claudette Wells.
  2. Stylistically, the novel takes some audacious risks, most of which are pulled off very effectively. One section is given over to an illustrated auction catalogue of Claudette memorabilia purloined by a former personal assistant. O’Farrell inserts her own spoilers, telling us for instance that “in several years’ time Daniel will receive the news that his daughter has been killed in an accident”. Chapter headings skip around in an unpredictable fashion: “Lenny, Los Angeles, 1994”, for instance, or “Rosalind, Bolivia, 2015”. Lenny is the subject of the most fleeting cameo, and we do not actually meet Rosalind until page 418. While this might sound quite bizarre and confusing, I actually really enjoyed the chapters written in more experimental formats.
  3. O’Farrell writes with a wry sense of humour and ensures that the intricate and intimate details of dysfunctional families never get lost in the novel’s wide scope.
  4. I learnt a lot of new words reading this book. Note: I recommend reading this with a dictionary nearby.

Now for my criticisms:

  1. I thought the constant jumping between timelines was a bit too chaotic. Now I don’t mind stories that hop between past and present, and I don’t mind stories where each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character (I thought this was done extremely well in Homegoing for example), but this – this was way too disjointed for my taste. There were just too many characters, too many timelines, and too many details to take in.
  2. The novel struggles to maintain its credibility at times.
  3. My biggest problem with this book is that I struggled to engage with the plot and the characters. While I can appreciate O’Farrell’s skill in exploring the nuances of human relationships and her eye for detail, I ultimately just didn’t care enough about the characters to remain interested for 496 pages.

While I do have my criticisms, I nonetheless thought that This Must Be The Place was a quirky, well-written book and I would definitely be interested in reading more of Maggie O’Farrell’s work in the future. Recommended.

Have you read This Must Be The Place? Or any of Maggie O’Farrell’s other novels? Do you have any recommendations? Would love to hear your thoughts. 


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Anna. Melbourne. Bookseller. Student. Serial tsundokist.

13 thoughts on “This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell”

  1. I think this one was definitely more readable than Infinite Jest – that book was a real challenge to get through (worth it though).


  2. Sounds like you a had one hell of a rocky ride with this book. I do appreciate the format of this review, it does help understand how complex your relationship to the book was. I liked the bit about needing a dictionary for this one. Reminds me of another book, which I haven’t read, where the author.. basically invents words. I believe the book was called Infinite Jest or something. Excellent review though! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t read any of Maggie O’Farrell’s works before, but the way you are describing this book reminds me of A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Egan’s book was more a collection of intersecting short stories which jumped around in time and were all from the perspective of a different character. I felt like the jumping was a challenge at first, but I got used to it eventually.
    Did you know much about This Must Be The Place before going into it? If not, do you think knowing more ahead of time would have helped?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a bit like ‘A Visit From the Goon Squad’ – I remember thinking that while reading it. I didn’t really know too much about it before reading it, although it received a rave review by one of my favourite book bloggers. I’m not sure if knowing more about it ahead of time would have helped too much though. I don’t really like knowing too much about a book before I read it – I usually prefer to do my research afterwards or while I’m reading. What about you? Do you like knowing a lot about a book before reading it?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I prefer to not know much about a book before reading it with a few exceptions: I am all about trigger warnings, particularly when I’m listening to an audiobook. There’s nothing worse than needing to pull over while driving because I’m having a negative reaction to something. Also, I don’t like things which are graphically violent. Some people consider that a trigger, others don’t. I ask around first. But that’s about it!


    1. Thanks Laila! I think you’d really like her writing (based on reading your reviews). I’ve heard the ‘The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox’ is really good.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I still recommend reading it! My review probably makes it sound a lot worse than it actually was. I thought the writing was really good and the characters were really interesting people (I just wasn’t very invested in them though).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I read Instructions For a Heatwave last year, and thought it was great! I will probably read this at some point, but I’m also interested in some of her older books.

    Liked by 1 person

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