Leggy, headstrong Amy Henderson set out for Hollywood after leaving her best friend Mona in the lurch back in their crummy hometown in upstate New York, but she wasn’t a hopeful starlet; she wanted to be a special-effects guru like her hero, Ray Harryhausen. Instead, she was electrocuted on the job, and the messy business of interpreting the significance of her life and a cryptic postcard addressed to Mona falls to her aggrieved husband, Arthur Rook. The title of Kate Racculia’s debut novel, This Must Be The Place, is just the first of many pop-culture references that litter this detective story turned quirky family drama and coming-of-age tale. Taken together with characters whose unconvincing quippy-ness occasionally borders on Juno-esque, and jokes that fizzle instead of crack, the charms of the underlying narrative can be difficult to make out.
After arriving in Ruby Falls with the intention of unearthing Amy’s past, Arthur joins the motley group lodging in the boarding house of cake-maker Mona Jones, who could’ve escaped like Amy if she weren’t weighed down by her daughter Oneida, who is herself saddled with an unlucky combination of brains, endless hair, and a distinctive name. The two aren’t sure what to think of their new tenant, who can’t work up the nerve to deliver the bad news or do the requisite sleuthing, and thus drifts through the house, specter-like, offending boarders, breaking picture-frames, and quickly dipping into the last of his goodwill reserves as he replays in his mind the highlight reel of his fleeting marriage. Racculia isn’t nearly so generous with Amy, and the novel skips around in time, gradually pulling back the curtain on the history of Mona and Amy’s soured friendship, and providing humanizing counterpoint to Arthur’s whitewashed memories.
Amy’s powder-keg of a secret has yet to be lit, and her identity is still open for interpretation, but Oneida’s personality hasn’t even been formed. Place is at its most engaging when it’s exploring the giddiness and guilelessness of adolescence, as when oversexed classmate Wendy opens up to Oneida about his family’s penchant for forgery: in his father’s case, valuable Joseph Cornell facsimiles, and in his, the whole high-octane, would-be badass persona. The two strike up a timid romance, but the secrets the adults in their lives have been stockpiling must come to light eventually, and when they do, the heart-to-hearts and door-slamming feel as inevitable as a much-needed exhalation. This Must Be The Place features a well-told (though unsurprising) story, but one populated by characters who are often memorable in the same way a wacky sitcom neighbor is memorable, and it’s difficult to fall in love with Mona after Arthur innocently, accurately observes, “You sound like TV.”