O’Farrell’s ambitious novel features American Daniel Sullivan, living in Donegal, Ireland, while teaching a course on linguistics. He has a sweet six-year-old daughter, Marithe,
and a baby called Calvin, and he’s married to beautiful Claudette, a world famous ex-movie star who mysteriously vanished from public life several years previously. Everyone still talks about Claudette’s tempestuous relationship with Timou Lindstrom, her dashing Swedish director, as well as her mystifying disappearance: “She’d left her life;
she'd pulled the plug; she’d disappeared.”
Claudette and Daniel come from very different backgrounds.
Theirs is an unlikely pairing, made all the more potent by Daniel’s dark and shameful secret. As the novel opens, Daniel is due to catch a flight to the United States for his father’s ninetieth birthday. Fate, however, intervenes, and he finds himself listening to the voice of his first love, ex-girlfriend Nicola Janks, speaking on a BBC radio show just before she died. Hearing Nicola’s voice finally forces Daniel to recall the night of the wedding party in Scotland in 1986 where “we slept in the woods and Nicola was there.”
For so many years, Daniel has done an assiduous job of keeping Nicola from his thoughts. Nicola’s ghostly, fractured voice coming out of the past forces Daniel to remember his pilgrimage back to Ireland from Berkley, and how his troubled marriage has ground his life to a halt. He still regrets walking out on his two young children: Niall, plagued by dermatitis; and Phoebe, who was in grade school at the time Daniel disappeared and who barely remembers this man who never came back.
Daniel’s mind zigzags “like a bluebottle” from Brooklyn to his father’s party to his memories of Nicola Janks. He becomes obsessed over whether Nicola had in fact died in 1986 in a revelation that seems at once devastating and also inevitable. Claudette meanwhile, also has her own secret sorrows. From the early 1990s in London,
when she lands a job as an administrative assistant for a local film society, to her discovery by Timou Lindstrom and her eventual rise to fame, O’Farrell portrays Claudette as a vulnerable woman ensnared in a prison of infidelity. So searing is Claudette’s sense of entrapment that she only occasionally catches a flash of life outside. Claudette aches to finds a valve or a vent for the restlessness that has simmered inside her mind since she was a child.
Other characters add weight to Daniel and Claudette’s steadily deteriorating marriage: Claudette’s brother and his wife; Daniel’s mother; his children; and Lenny, an assistant to Lindstrom whose confession to Claudette in Los Angeles in 1994 perhaps provides the catalyst for her decision to leave. Moving from Daniel’s return to England, where he finally learns the truth about what happened to Nicola that night, the novel’s point of view subtly shifts, focusing instead on Claudette’s reaction to Daniel’s dreaded secret. Part of Daniel’s journey is the realization that his life has been a series of evasions and cover-ups, “dropped stitches in knitting.” He’s been a husband and a father and an accomplished teacher, but Daniel also thinks of himself as a “deserter, a sham and a thief” in a reality “riddled with holes and caverns like a limestone landscape.”
Tender and intuitive but also sometimes clunky in the way it shifts time periods and countries, O’Farrell’s story is about geographical displacement and the inability to communicate within the confines of a marriage. Although there’s no doubting the author’s energy and passion, I often found the narrative a bit of a slog. Also, Daniel is so unappealing, so it’s easy to sympathize with Claudette as she proceeds to put up an emotional barrier between them.
Ironically, only Daniel’s children are capable of adapting to the evolving family dynamic and to the man who abandoned them. The plot accelerates ahead with Daniel eventually redeeming himself in a blaze of sobriety. Finally the ugly truth of the night of the wedding party is revealed, but not before we witness Daniel’s final admission that he really does love Claudette.