INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEAT WAVE by Maggie O’Farrell
“The heat, the heat. It wakes Gretta just after dawn, propelling her from the bed and down the stairs. It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs. The air in the kitchen is like a solid entity filling the space, pushing Gretta down into the floor, against the side of the table.
Only she would choose to bake bread in such weather.”
Review by Roger Brunyate В (JAN 16, 2014)
Almost as though in reference to the title of her best novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006), Maggie O’Farrell’s new one begins with a disappearance. One morning in 1976, in the midst of a heatwave, retired bank manager Robert Riordan, after laying breakfast for his wife Gretta, leaves their North London house, draws some money from his bank, and does not return. Within a day, their three grown children have all returned home to help their mother handle the crisis: Michael Francis from his house a few miles away, where he lives with his wife and two young children; Monica from a farm in Gloucestershire, where she lives with her second husband and, at weekends, his two children; and Aoife**, the youngest, from New York, where she is single with a boyfriend. Thus O’Farrell lays the groundwork for a book about family dynamics, not only Gretta, the absent Robert, and their grown children, but also the individual situations of the offspring, who will each confront and largely resolve their own personal crises over the four-day span of the novel. At this level, it is an extraordinarily well-constructed and heart-warming read.
Michael Francis is a bored high-school history teacher, who has had to give up his dreams of getting a PhD and becoming a professor, a circumstance that has cast a shadow over his marriage to his wife, Claire. Monica has gone from a failed first marriage to wed an antique dealer in the country, but has never felt at home in his deliberately unmodernized farmhouse or with his two girls. Aoife, by far my favorite of the three, is a free spirit, brilliant but severely dyslexic, a disability that she manages to hide from the photographer for whom she works in New York, her boyfriend, and even her family. I did wonder why O’Farrell chose to set the novel in 1976, apart from the fact that there was a severe heatwave in that year. I now see that it marks a particular point in the timeline of sexual liberation, which one gathers happened later in devout Catholic families than elsewhere. The stories of all three children are punctuated by something to do with sex or pregnancy, and what one might call the old morality will become an important factor in understanding the lives of Gretta and Robert.
This is a lovely story with moments of real beauty in its final pages. But it shows instances of carelessness that I don’t normally associate with O’Farrell. Some of these are verbal, such as the odd use of “both” in the quotation below, or confused similes such as a surprise that “rears up in front of you, like a cliff-edge you weren’t aware of.” Some are matters of transparent narrative convenience, like a priest who hears the name Riordan (surely not uncommon in Ireland) and just happens to reveal an important part of the back-story. And my empathy with Aoife was undermined by glossed-over details like how she could have obtained an American visa at the drop of a hat without the ability to handle any of the relevant paperwork. The publisher calls this “a perfect summer read.” Sure it is — but Maggie O’Farrell is capable of a whole lot more and although you will likely enjoy this novel, first-time readers may want to start with Maggie O’Farrell’s backlist to see her at her more nuanced and innovative best.
**”Her mother is the only one who can properly pronounce her name. Her accent — still unmistakably Galway, after all these years — strikes the first syllable with a sound that is halfway between e and a, and the second with a mysterious blend of v and f. She drives the name precisely between both ‘Ava’ and ‘Eva’ and ‘Eve,’ passing all three but never colliding with them.”
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 120 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Knopf (June 18, 2013)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Maggie O’Farrell|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:|
- After You’d Gone (2000)
- My Lover’s Lover (2002)
- The Distance Between Us (2004)
- The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006)
- The Hand That First Held Mine (2010)
- Instructions for a Heat Wave (June 2013)