In her latest novel This Place of Wonder, Barbara O’Neal acutely captures the nature of grief, the aching of belonging, and the powerful effect hope and time can have on both.
Famed chef Augustus Beauvais dies unexpectedly, leaving behind two daughters, an ex-wife, a girlfriend, and a sagging empire. The women who mourn him are Meadow, his ex-wife; Maya, his daughter from his first marriage; Rory, his stepdaughter and Meadow’s daughter; and Norah, a girlfriend who put her career on hold to live with him. Their paths are more firmly intertwined with the ongoing police investigation into Augustus’s death. This novel is an in-depth character study of three of these women and a bit of the difficult man who connects them.
Each woman must work through their own trauma and grief while also answering probing questions from the police. As a recovering alcoholic, Maya wonders what his death and her lack of grief means for her recovery. Norah struggles financially, and must find her way back to herself. Meadow is trying to be there for both of her daughters, Maya and Rory, while they question her methods. These characters are intricately developed, making them feel real and relatable, and making their grief hit the reader a little bit harder.
As always, O’Neal escorts readers through an emotional and tumultuous journey that leaves the reader with a sense of hope, but also a lot of thought-provoking questions. This Place of Wonder is one that sticks with you, the characters living in your mind as you play over the plot again and again. It’s definitely re-readable.
The plot is moderately fast-paced, as the internal growth of the characters and their external actions demonstrate how trauma and their respective pasts intermingle and influence their present. Told in alternating points of view from Maya, Meadow, and Norah, each character has a lot at stake and their emotional growth really drives the plot, with the police investigation into the death driving the external plot. It combines into the kind of book you just don’t want to put down, both because you want to find out what happens next and because you just enjoy sitting with these characters.
There are several areas of representation this novel handles beautifully. The grip and effects of alcoholism on the person battling it and the people who love them was portrayed excellently, in a way that was realistic without being triggering (though this will vary based on personal experience with this topic). Grief and how it can reveal itself when relationships are complicated was also incredibly well done. The complicated paternal relationship really stuck out as being particularly on-point. The blended nature of Meadow and Augustus’s family was lovely to see, as was their relationship with both daughters, regardless of biological parenthood.
In general, books with letters from dead fathers to their daughters eviscerate my heart every time. So this book did make me cry in that regard, but if that isn’t a personal touchstone it may affect you differently. I would imagine it’s hard to walk away from this book without feelings though; these characters feel so real, and the events occurring so possible, that walking away without having emotions to process is unlikely. But that’s not a bad thing! Personally, I love books that make me feel.
This Place of Wonder strikes that beautiful, elusive balance of both feeling real and leaving the reader with a sense of hope. It is further proof of Barbara O’Neal’s mastery at creating re-readable, relatable, realistic books.
This Place of Wonder will be available July 19, 2022.
Thank you to the author, NetGalley, and Lake Union Publishing for an advanced copy such that I could share my honest opinions.