This Must Be the Place
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In her debut novel, This Must Be the Place author Anna Winger offers an intimate, humorous, life-affirming portrait of modern-day Berlin. The city, like Wingers’ characters, is inextricably linked to a painful history and haunted by questions of how to move into the future.
Winger’s heroine, Hope, is off to an uneasy start in Berlin. She’s moved there to escape New York and to join her workaholic husband, who is often away on business. Lost and lonely in such a strange city, Hope spends much of her time in the bathtub of their apartment in West Berlin. But in the apartment just above, Walter Baum, an aging has-been voiceover actor is also languishing, stalled in both his life and career. When a chance encounter in their building’s elevator brings the two together, they make the first new friends they’ve each had in years.
As their friendship deepens, they begin to chip away at their respective isolation, at painful secrets—in their own lives and in the 90-year-old apartment building where they both live. Their physical and emotional journeys through Berlin punctuate haunting landscapes that lurk beneath the city’s surface.
This Must Be the Place uses Berlin as a point of reference and as a point of departure. It provides a welcome window into present-day life in a complex city struggling to define its relationship to a sobering past.
Anna Winger grew up in Massachusetts and in Mexico. Her essays have been published in The New York Times Magazine and the Frankfurter Allgemeine, among other publications. She is also a photographer and the creator of NPR’s “Berlin Stories.” A graduate of Columbia University, she lives in Berlin with her family.
- Early in the novel Walter witnesses an argument between Dave and Hope in which she throws down a map and he rips it to pieces. How does the map and the sense of place—in Berlin and on a larger scale—figure into the story’s evolution?
- As the voice of Tom Cruise, Walter acts as a transmitter and interpreter of American culture to the German people. How does that role relate to his identity? Who represents the voice and spirit of Jews in the book? Who acts as a mouthpiece for former East Berlin? Former West Berlin?
- The first time she meets Walter in the elevator, Hope is absentmindedly singing REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight this Feeling”: "It’s time to bring this ship into the shore and throw away the oars. Forever…” What does the song conjure for you? And what function do you think it plays in the story?
- Set in Berlin of 2001, the novel references the events of September 11th. Walter’s girlfriend, Heike, wears an “I Love New York” t-shirt as a sign of “solidarity and compassion” [page 13]. What other situations portrayed in the novel might merit empathy? How does the emotional backdrop of September 11th contribute to Hope’s story?
- Instead of a guidebook, Hope’s husband, a Jewish American, hands her a stack of books about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism to help her get her bearings in her new city. Hope uses one of the titles, Hitler’s Willing Executioners as a doorstop. What do you think this says about their differing views on modern Berlin—and their relationships with the city’s history?
- The novel is laced with themes of tragedy and loss: the murder of Jews in Berlin, the division of the city, Walter’s painful departure from the United States, Hope’s miscarriage and the slow dissolution of her marriage. Throughout the book, the characters confront their situations in different ways. How do Walter and Hope cope with these losses in their lives? How do they cope with the aftermath of such absences?
- How do Hope’s struggles compare to Dave’s? And to Walter’s? Which character do you identify with most closely? Did that change during the course of the novel? Why and when?
- Collective and individual Jewish memory mark Berlin’s landscape and the psyche of many of the characters in this story. Dave has started a porn collective among former prostitutes in Poland, a project he sees as altruistic economic development. Meanwhile, he says he likes his Germans “guilty.” In what other ways does Jewish identity manifest itself in the book? How are the themes of identity—and Jewish identity—linked to the evolution of the plot?
- Walter reassembles the torn-up map of his adopted city; Hope excavates the walls of the nursery in her whitewashed apartment. How do these constructive/destructive activities relate to Walter and Hope’s personal stories? The past and the future of Berlin?
- Orson, the East German director and screenwriter, says that admitting that you witnessed September 11th live, in public, is akin to revealing numbers tattooed on one’s arm. What do you think of that statement? How does it relate to the setting and progression of the plot? What does it say about history? Tragedy? Memory?
- In Florida, the gate of Walter’s grandfather’s retirement home, Springtime Estates, has a Star of David on it. For Walter, the symbol conjures memories of a school visit to the medieval Bavarian city of Regensburg where a toilet in the dungeon of the Town Hall was made from a Jewish tombstone. What does the symbol mean to you? Did that change while you read the book?
- “This Must Be the Place” is also the title of a Talking Heads song, whose lyrics include, “Home is where I want to be. But I guess I’m already there.” How does that relate to the characters in Winger’s novel and to the city of Berlin? What is the relationship between the action of the story and the time and place in which it is set? How would it be different if it were set in Paris? or Vienna? Or if it were set in Berlin of the 1980s?
- The mourner’s Kaddish is traditionally recited in the ancient language of Aramaic, extolling praise for the Almighty and asking for peace from heaven, life and all of the people Israel. Hope and Walter use the words of 1980s pop artists Madonna, Journey, and REO Speedwagon to pay homage to the dead. How does that fit into the action of the novel? The Kaddish is typically recited on key holidays throughout the year. What do you think will happen in the future? Will Hope and Walter recite it again? How?
- Orson Welles explains to Hope that although he continues to live in the same East Berlin neighborhood where he has always lived, the place he grew up in is gone. He says that even if he wanted to revisit the home of his childhood, it would be impossible. What does he mean? In what other ways does the novel reference or involve Berlin’s divided past? Do you think this condition, of home lost without leaving, is unique to locations that have experienced great calamity, such as New York City after September 11th, or are most places caught up in the tide of change? Can any of us ever, really, go home again?
- In an interview with The Jewish Journal, Anna Winger expressed a desire that “people would read the book, and it would give them pause to reconsider some of the prejudices they have about the city.” What were your feelings about Berlin before reading the book? Did the novel challenge any of your previous ideas about life in the German capital? What stands out for you about modern life in Berlin?