When Kate Racculia finished her master’s in fine arts from Emerson College, her first thought was, wow, this is great, now I can be a writer and write fulltime! “Then I realized I had to pay off my loans,” laughs Racculia. 

As a result of this buzz-killing reality check, she found a 9-to-5 job in financial services marketing in Boston, and spent two and a half years’ worth of weekends writing what would become her first novel, This Must Be the Place. It’s a book bursting with ideas about grief, choices and what it means to belong, anchored by the quirky, exquisite story of Mona Jones, baker of wedding cakes and young proprietor of an upstate New York boardinghouse, and her teenage daughter Oneida, two perfectly content outsiders in their small town of Ruby Falls.

Racculia's remarkable debut is book bursting with ideas about grief, choices and what it means to belong.

Mona has a secret she’s held tight for more than a decade, one she shares only with her estranged friend Amy. When Amy is electrocuted while working on a Hollywood movie set, her grief-stricken husband Arthur realizes he didn’t know much about his wife at all. Determined to unravel his wife’s foggy past, Arthur travels to Ruby Falls with a pink shoebox filled with clues that only Mona understands, including an old postcard on which Amy wrote:

Mona Jones, I’m sorry. I should have told you. You knew me better than anyone—I think you knew me better than me. Don’t worry, I swear I’m happier dead. Anyway, I left you the best parts of myself. You know where to look.

Throughout her remarkably self-assured debut, Racculia sprinkles allusions to her childhood inspirations, including repeated references to special effects master Ray Harryhausen. It’s only fitting for this self-described “bit of a geek.”

“I feel like people have very different definitions of a geek versus a nerd versus a dork,” Racculia says matter-of-factly. “I think a geek is someone who is really passionate and really interested in things. I love learning things, knowing things. I love trivia. I’m a super science fiction fan. I grew up watching Star Trek and Dark Crystals.”

As an only child in a close-knit family in suburban Syracuse, she grew up writing from the time she could put her thoughts to paper—or rope someone else into doing it for her.

“I would dictate things to people who could write, my grandparents and parents, and then make little illustrations,” she says. “I think I’ve always thought of myself as a writer. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that never said, ‘Kate, you shouldn’t go to school for that.’ I always had support from my family, teachers and friends.”

Considering Racculia’s own idyllic childhood and close-knit family (the only two readings on her publicity schedule so far are Boston and Syracuse, where extended family will pack the house—accordingly, she’s selecting non-racy excerpts to read), This Must Be the Place is at times surprisingly dark, tinged with regret over choices not made, paths not taken. After growing up together, inseparable, Amy and Mona run away one summer to the Jersey shore. Without consulting Mona, Amy makes a choice there that changes both their lives forever. 

Admirably, Racculia didn’t shy away from drawing out the imperfections in her characters, especially Amy.

“[In] a lot of fiction, when someone dies it’s very sad and books about grief are about letting that person go. There’s this tendency to make that person truly perfect, this wonderful person who has left us. I wanted to write about a person who made some horrible decisions,” Racculia says. “At first you see [Amy] through Arthur, you meet her and you like her, and then you find out more and like her less.”

That’s not to say This Must Be the Place is all doom and gloom. In Oneida, Racculia draws a particularly poignant, vibrant portrait of an awkward, frizzy-haired teenager just beginning to come into her own.

Oneida puts a tentative toe in the treacherous waters of the teenage dating pool when she is paired with fellow outcast Eugene on a class project. Eugene has his own issues: His father, a security guard, steals artwork from the museums he patrols and replaces the art with forgeries. His mother and sister spend all their free time rehearsing with their rock band. Eugene’s ham-handed wooing of Oneida is one of the highlights of the book, particularly when he blurts out to her, “If I don’t have real sex soon, I will die.”

“Eugene is kind of so clueless about who he really is,” says Racculia. “It was so fun to write about that family. It was the purest, completely made up part of the story. Obviously, I’ve never met an art forger.”

It’s this complete originality and fresh voice that has generated considerable buzz about Racculia’s novel. Her parents recently sent her a photo of the book’s poster in the window of a Barnes and Noble bookstore where she worked while in college.

“It’s so strange,” she said. “My high school friend posted that picture to Facebook. Friends my dad went to high school with were sending me pictures.”

It’s a time in her life that she calls “exciting and totally surreal,” an excitement that’s likely to grow as word spreads about her remarkable new book. 

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