‘This Must Be the Place,’’ Maggie O’Farrell’s seventh novel, opens to find Daniel Sullivan watching in horror as his wife, Claudette Wells, rushes from their secluded Donegal house, baby strapped to her back, to let off two blasts from a shotgun sending a possible paparazzo fleeing. Claudette, we discover, retreated from the world to Ireland’s remotest county a dozen years ago to escape the oppressive celebrity that became hers as an Oscar-winning actor, screenwriter, and director. Later we will hear of that stellar career and her up-and-down relationship with her lover, a Swedish director of experimental films who discovered her. We will learn, too, of her spiky impatience with the media, which led her to vanish, seemingly off the face of the earth, with the couple’s young son.
For his part, Daniel met Claudette during a trip to Ireland, embarked upon in part to take his mind off a failed marriage and lack of reasonable access to his two children in California. With some experience in speech therapy, Daniel gained the chary Claudette’s trust by helping her son, Ari, develop tactics to cope with his stammer. Next came marriage and two children, Marithe and baby Calvin. All is well until one day Daniel hears the recorded voice of Nicola Janks, an old lover, on the BBC and learns that she is dead, as he feared she was. It is a fate for which he was possibly responsible and about which he has never spoken a word to anyone, most especially Claudette.
Daniel feels wretched, consumed with guilt, but the details of what happened will take a very long time to be doled out. In the meantime and out of the blue, another tragedy strikes, and Daniel pretty much falls to pieces with unhappy consequences for his present marriage. The novel, which opens in 2010, travels back and forth through decades and around the globe: Ireland, England, the Scottish Borders, India, the United States, and Scandinavia. It fills us in willy-nilly on the doings and fashion choices of all the various children and is delivered through more than a dozen points of view given in the first, second, and third persons, all the while changing gears through past, present, and future tenses. The entire experiment with perspective is presided over by a disembodied, clairvoyant docent who tips us to future plot developments as well as to those which take place off the page.
In the end, the facts, when finally assembled, of Daniel’s guilty secret are not especially convincing. It turns out he failed to find out what happened to Nicola after leaving her passed out in a forest in Scotland under the care of his good friend Todd, while he himself rushed to catch a flight to the United States and his mother’s deathbed. We are asked to believe that he let 24 years go by before asking Todd how things went, and we find ourselves moving farther and farther along the road to not caring.
This is a road upon which we had set foot long ago with the intolerably wonderful Claudette. A jade-eyed, honey-tressed “bony Botticelli,’’ she dresses eccentrically, her baggy outfits housing “stupendously pneumatic breasts.” She is half French, as willful as a cat, skittish as a racehorse, and as handy with a baby as she is with a gun, hammer, or film script. Her celebrity is insisted on, but if there is anything more tedious than a celebrity it is surely a made-up celebrity.
Still, the byproducts of her fame are given full treatment including a pointless interview with her former lover and an 18-page section purporting to be an auction catalog of “Claudette Wells Memorabilia’’ being sold by a former assistant, presumably for the gobs of cash fans of the Garbo-like recluse will pony up. Complete with text and photographs, it is so utterly without interest that only a reviewer would feel obliged to read through it. (“LOT 2/ Vintage scarf/ Silk, dark red border with interlocking abstract design. Shows some wear; fading to one corner.’’)
“This Must Be the Place’’ incorporates many of the elements found in O’Farrell’s previous works: secrets of the past, vanishing acts, family tension and turmoil, and independent, unconventional women, and her writing conveys as vivid a sense of the place as it has in the past. But unlike her last couple of books, fine novels about completely believable people with credible secrets, sorrows, and vexed relationships, the present work has a desperate scrabbling quality and is not at all worthy of this writer’s talent.
THIS MUST BE THE PLACE
By Maggie O’Farrell
Knopf, 382 pp., $26.95
Katherine A. Powers received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle and is the editor of “Suitable Accommodations: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942 – 1963.” Her e-mail address is email@example.com