Warning Spoilers (And prepare for a rant)
Part of being in a book club is to read books you would not usually look twice at. So when the other book members said they really wanted to read “This must be the place” by Maggie O’Farrell, I begrudgingly went along. Hoping and prying it would not be as bad as the blurred foretasted. Unfortunately it was not!
This must be the place tells the story of Daniel and Claudette’s relationship. How they met, fell in love, married and why they separated and divorced, along with a a lot of back story to fully explain why Daniel and Claudette are the people that they are.
So far ok, however the reasons why it is a terrible book and I would advice anyone to stay away from is as follows:
Because this is a story about a couple you would think it was a love story. However it is not. For a love story to take place you must actually care or sympathies with the characters. Here I did neither! Mostly because they unbelievable or just not likable. Take our lead male and suppose to be heart throb/love interest Daniel. Daniel is a highly intelligent American Professor who is fascinated with words. However he is not like any professor I’ve come across, instead Daniel has all the American cliques that chick literature plays on. He’s loud, tall and handsome, with an engaging and charming manner. Everyone likes him, (to the extent that a male university friend becomes creepily obsessed with him). He picks up women easily, as he cant help but flirt with everything and anything that crosses his path. So much so he does it unknowingly (even the 69 year old travelling companion thinks he may be flirting with her).
However hes also a complex man who Pascaline describes as “someone who is so . . . different on the inside from how they are on the outside.” As despite appearing like a confident sexy man, inside he is a child needing to be taken care of. This can be seen by the fact that at every emotionally challenging moment of his life Daniel drinks, takes drugs, sleeps around and does everything he can to push people away from him. This makes him incredibly irritable, especially as he keeps on having children with one woman after the next. He appears to want to be good dad to them. Indeed his oldest son Nial has some very found memories of him and he helps his step son Ari with his stammer the minute they meet. However his bad behavior leads to his own children having to look after. With Ari stacking his fridge for him (despite himself having a child on the way) and Nial living with him and getting him into rehab. He is a man I feel very little sympathy for and often want to reach out and smack. When Claudette pulls him up on the fact he cheated on his first love the day she had an abortion because he could not handle it I let out a THANK YOU. Daniel is not a nice man. He is damaged and weak and by the end of the book you think Claudette will spend her whole life looking after him or waiting for the next disastrous just round the bend.
Our heroin and love goddess is another stereotypical chick lit character. A naturally beautiful, strong but naive world famous actress. Claudette is romanticized from the beginning when we find out she was born of a french mother and English father- already making her a character of culture. Claudette’ story starts from when she graduates university and gets a job working for a independent movie company in London. She works hard and enjoys her job and her initiation into the adult world. However one night she meets the Swiss (all round bad man) Timou, an up and coming writer/director, who convinces her to become an actress (despite the fact she has never acted before or has had any interest in it). Amazingly she is found to be a natural, not just at acting but also at writing and editing and before long she is shot to fame. In these pages the reader is treated to the classic chick literature of female escapism with the glamours world of money and fame and Claudette waited on hand and food, private security and journalist begging for an interview.
However all is not as it seems. Claudette does not enjoy this new world in which she has become caged both physically and mentally. As well as being locked into a big house unable to leave on her own, Timou is also emotionally abusing her. The chapters containing her and Timou relationship show how he is completely in control of Claudette, even from the first time they meet and he playfully pulls her, hair we know he will be the one calling the shots. There’s is a horrible relationship which shows Claudette’s weakness and naive. For instance she doesn’t realize Timou is cheating on her for a long time. Then when she does she doesn’t leave him but instead gets pregnant with his baby. Timou is incredibly selfish and doesn’t care about Claudette or their son, all her cares about is himself and his career. He uses Claudette to make his scrips better and to better edit his films. The stress of this world has caused her to have several breakdowns (another thing which Timou doesn’t care about but instead pushes her to make one film after the next). When she finally leaves him all his talent goes and he is left working on a Swiss detective show. In Claudette’s leaving Timou she also leaves her acting career and fame.
Seeing as Claudette is an actress she has to leave Timou in the most dramatic way possible – faking the death of both herself and her young son! (As Claudette’s youngest daughter points out this is horrific and beyond comprehension). Maggie tries to write this as if it were the only solution and yet as Daniel later says it must have been difficult to her family and Timou to not know if she and her son were alive for over two weeks! Her callousness and selfishness from this point on is often striking.
Claudette then goes into hiding. At the end of the book Maggie explains (in a bit of ego rubbing) that she had wanted to write a book about a recluse. However there is little of interest of Claudette’s character her from this point on. She appears to drift through life. Even in her separating of Daniel is done so slowly its almost intentional. The most dramatic thing I came away from with Claudette’s reclusiveness was the cruelty of it all. The trauma of the event causes her young son to have a life long stutter, indeed when we first see him he is so badly dressed Daniel thinks he has been abandoned. Because of her fear of being discovered she then is unable to take any of her children to school, instead having to home school them or rely on her husband or brother to attend parents evenings, plays and graduations. (Obviously she has enough money to never work again and look after all her family, but not enough to get a new identity or surgery). She also never tells her children the reason why she lives like this which causes a strain between herself and her young teenage daughter.
The poor treatment of women
I can only assume the amount of poor treatment of women in this book was put there to pull on the heart strings and make women readers sympathies. However it is just so overwhelming and terrible at points ( The terrible image the reader has for several chapters of Nicola Janks body being left in the woods, not knowing if she is alive or dead). While in comparison the men in this book seem either to be the bringers of sorrow or childish in their own weakness. Don’t believe me then lets count them:
- Daniels mum dies unhappy, thinking of her true love, who she didn’t spend her life with as she was already engaged to Daniel’s dad and didn’t want to break her promise, his heart and bring shame on her family by the scandal of an Irish Catholic girl marrying an Italian
- Nicola Janks has an abortion (against her will as at the last moment she asks them to stop and they don’t-truly terrifying. She then dies from pneumonia, made worse by her anorexia, brought about by her abortion and Daniel cheating on her. Her last dying days are made even worse as she is weirdly (and one suspects half heartily) taken care of by Daniels odd obsessed friend, (who you can image rooting through all her draws and belongings instead of contacting her family and showing her some real care) who steals Daniels last love letter to her in an act of revenge, because Daniel hadn’t contacted him.
- Claudette who is used and mistreated by Timou and is so desperate to escape him and their life fakes her death. When he does learn she is alive he chooses not to have contacted with him or their young son.
- Daniels oldest daughter is shot in the head at a shop as a teenager and dies.
- Rosalind whose husband cheats on her and feels it is unimportant that he had a child with another woman he never tells her about
- Maeve who is unable to have her own children despite desperately wanting one.
Little irritating points
There are also lots of other little points that make this book annoying
- I was highly annoyed by the lack of editing in this book. The biggest flaw being when the reader is first told of Daniel’s daughter death its that she dies years later in a car crash. Then later in the book its she dies in a robbery gone bad!!!!!
- The chapters from characters outside the family. I’m sure they are there so we as the reader can see what Claudette and Daniel looked liked to the outside world. But honestly I didn’t need Rosalind’s chapter to gauge that Daniel had hit rock bottom or Maeve’s chapter to see Claudette was a natural mum. It just felt like confusing (especially Rosalind’s chapter which is a story on its own),over kill and that I was being treated as a stupid reader
- The chapter dedicated to Nial’s exczame. I’m sure it was there to symbolize something like everyone has their own pain to carry and its how we handle it that matters. For instance Nial really wants to scratch his exczame as knows it will give him temporary relief but is ultimately bad for him is the same thought process and advice Daniel is given when finding out what happened to Nicola. But overall it was just very upsetting and discomforting to read
- Daniel never takes his grandfathers ashed home! I was touched by the selfishness and heartlessness of this! The whole reason he met Claudette was in a rescue mission to find his long dead grandfathers ashes. Once he has found them he bumps into Claudette and so they must have kept them as a memento of that point in time. However his original plan with the ashes was to add them with his recently deceased grandmother. Obviously that never happened and Claudette has hidden them away in a shed in the back garden!
- I don’t mind stories that play around with time or that are written from the point of view of different characters, however I was constantly lost in this book. Trying to figure out who was talking, when and why. It just felt like chaos
OK so you can see there is a lot to this book I don’t like. However I can appreciate the style of Maggie’s writing. She is obsessed by the small details of life and how they can tell you a story or reveal a character, a history – the auction catalog is a good (if annoying) example of this.
I also have to Maggie her credit for being brave enough to write from the perspective of many different people, from a 5 year old Irish girl, to a alcoholic 40 year old American to a 69 year old rich divorcee.
I also can see that she is doing more then just telling a story, she is writing about identity (shown by the poem quoted at the beginning), about growing up (see in Claudette’s first chapter written is a style that shows she is not yet a full identity and also in both her and Daniels teenage daughters chapters on their feelings of being lost). She is also making a comment on love and its true nature (shown in Daniels mother trying to find a piece of literature to explain her feeling of love at first sight) and there is also the theme of personal loss and grief and its effect it has on different people. However although I can see these theme are there I have little to no interest to explore them, as I have no interest in the characters or there silly lives.