A reclusive French film star, her American linguist husband, and their exes, parents, siblings, and children from various marriages feature in a sophisticated story about love.
In an interlocking series of narratives set from 1944 to 2016, in places ranging from Sussex to Goa to Brooklyn, with titles like “The Tired Mind Is a Stovetop,” “How a Locksmith Must Feel,” and “When All the Tiny Lights Begin to Be Extinguished,” British novelist O’Farrell (Instructions for A Heat Wave, 2013, etc.) unfolds the history of Daniel Sullivan and Claudette Wells. After being discovered in her early 20s by a Swedish film director, Claudette became an international icon and obsession on the most extreme scale possible—until the day she disappeared so completely she was assumed dead. Actually, she was hiding at a remote location in Donegal, where unhappy Berkeley professor Daniel, in Ireland to collect his grandfather’s ashes, finds her broken down by the side of the road. From that literal and figurative intersection—as the title says, “this must be the place”—the story shoots out in many directions, past and future. Almost every character struggles with some burdensome disability—stuttering, eczema, anorexia, agoraphobia, infertility—and yet all have a magnetic star quality courtesy of O’Farrell’s excellent characterizations. The scenario is glamorous, the writing is stylish, the globe-trotting almost dizzying, but there’s a satisfying core of untempered feeling as well. Here’s Daniel, reunited with Claudette after a separation: “I don’t think our language contains a word with sufficient largesse or capacity to express the euphoria I feel as I bury my face in her hair….What redemption there is in being loved: we are always our best selves when loved by another.” Or sister-in-law Maeve, upon picking up her adopted daughter in Chengdu, China: “If she was a liquid, she would drink her; if she was a gas, she would breather her in; if she was a pill, she would down her; a dress, she would wear her; a plate, she would lick her clean.”
Juicy and cool, this could be O’Farrell’s U.S. breakthrough book.