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About the author ...
Maggie O'Farrell is an author from Northern Ireland that has written six novels, and this - Instructions for a Heatwave - is her most recent and was published last year. Although I had heard of O'Farrell I had never read any of her work before this, and wasn't sure what to expect - but I was attracted to this book mainly by the cover!
The story ...
The book is set during the heatwave of 1976 and is set in north London - Holloway to be precise, which is an area I know well so the book instantly appealed to me. It follows the Riordan family, whose three grown children are all forced back home when father Robert suddenly and uncharacteristically disappears. As is often the case with these novels, the three children have very distinctive characters and problems of their own - . Michael Francis is trapped in an unhappy marriage, black sheep Aoife is in New York working as a photographer's assistant, while stuck up middle child Monica is in the country living with her second husband in a stuffy old house she hates.
They all arrive home when their dad disappears and, with mum Gretta, try to piece together what has happened to him. But Mum Gretta has plenty of secrets of her own...
The verdict ...
I really loved this book, which is all about characters and families, and their relationships with one another. There is a lot of dialogue and conflict between them - and actually the story and mystery surrounding Robert's disappearance almost becomes secondary to what is happening with the rest of the family. We gradually build up the stories of the three children and the book takes us from Holloway to Ireland.
Overall I really enjoyed this book - it was very easy to read and was full of interesting characters. It is not an action packed book, so it isn't for lovers of twisty thrillers - but if you like character-led novels then I'd really recommend this. I will definitely be reading O'Farrell's other novels.
One morning in July of 1976, as the heat in London was about to hit over 90oC for the 10th day in a row, Robert Riordan went out to buy a newspaper - just as he did every morning. Only this time, he didn't come home to his wife Gretta and her freshly baked Irish soda bread. When Gretta finally figures out something is wrong, she calls her son Michael Francis. But his increasing problems at home prevent him from coming round right away. Her daughter Monica doesn't seem too worried about it either, and is more concerned about winning over her two new step-children. As for her baby Aiofe, well, she's all the way over in New York. But when it becomes obvious that this isn't just tardiness, all three children come together to help find their father - despite any differences they've had in the past. While trying to find him, they also uncover some painful information about both themselves and the past. This is Maggie O'Farrell's "Instructions for a Heatwave."
My first impression of this book is that of all of O'Farrell's novels to date, this one is probably the most character driven of them all. That isn't to say that her previous books didn't have vivid characters. On the contrary, the portraits she draws of the people in her novels it is probably one of O'Farrell's greatest fortes. However, in this novel, it feels as if the circumstance that she develops to bring these people together is secondary to the characters themselves. For instance, we get more back story on each of these people than we do in most of her other novels. But instead of being distracting, these vignettes are essential to understanding these characters, and are melded perfectly into the story as they radiate around the action.
I have to say that this could have been a downfall for this book, since the action here is actually very minimalistic. Often when writers have to deal with many personalities and their interactions, it helps that there are an equal number of situations that bring these elements to the forefront. But O'Farrell decided not to go that route. Instead, she has become emboldened by this challenge, which shows just how much she's grown as a writer.
Of course, with this many people to deal with, not all of the characters can get equal attention. If there was one character that I felt was less fully drawn here, it would certainly be Robert. However, because his disappearance brings them all together, this makes perfect sense. He is the motivation in the background, and having him out of the picture throughout almost the entire book is what makes everyone else stand out so intensely.
Even so, it would be fair to say that the rest of the individuals in the family are dealt with on various levels. For instance, Gretta is portrayed almost as a victim here, and in that role, O'Farrell allows her to be the object of her children's attention. While we get to know some of what goes on in Gretta's head, because of her position in the story, she also ends up taking a somewhat secondary role. With this, the major concentration can then be on the three children and their relationships - with each other, with each of their parents, with others in their lives and with themselves.
It occurred to me as I read this novel that each reader will find someone different in this book they can identify with. My personal sympathies were drawn to Aiofe (pronounced EE-fah, Irish for Eva), the youngest daughter who suffers from severe dyslexia. I have mild dyslexia so I know that in the 60s and 70s this was just beginning to be widely recognized in the USA as being a real condition. I don't know how the UK approached this problem during that time, but I'd be willing to guess it was somewhat similar to my experience. At that time, undiagnosed people who suffered from this disability either let people think they were stupid and/or lazy, or hid the problem completely. Aiofe does the latter (as did I), and I was thrilled that O'Farrell did such a marvelous job describing Aiofe and how she viewed her dyslexia.
As usual, O'Farrell does this with her typical, deceptively simple, language. This style enchants the reader and allows the prose to flow like a gentle river, sweeping the reader along so that we hardly feel the pages flying by. At the same time, she pulls the reader under and into the lives of her characters, making us feel they are members of our own families. While admittedly this latest novel hasn't replaced my favorite (that still goes to Esme Lennox), nor did it make me cry like her last novel did, I still have to highly recommend it and give it at least four and a half stars out of five.