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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - Maggie O'Farrell

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Author: Maggie O'Farrell / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 13 January 2007 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: Headline Publishing Group / Title: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox / ISBN 13: 9780755308446 / ISBN 10: 0755308446

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      25.02.2012 21:21
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      Enjoyable read

      This is a review of the 2006 book 'The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox' by Maggie O'Farrell. I saw a synopsis of the book and decided right there and then that I wanted to read it. The book tackles an emotive issue, of those people who have been in care for the majority of their lives and sometimes they were placed in mental institutions for the wrong reasons. Men could have their wives and daughters sectioned and detained in hospital with just their permission and a doctor's signature.

      Setting
      The book is set in the modern day with flashbacks to 1930s Edinburgh. There are three generations in the story although the middle generation is only mentioned in passing. The main character is Iris who runs a vintage clothing shop and her grandmother Kitty, and Kitty's sister Esme. Various boyfriends and husbands are mentioned but really we are working with the family matriarch and the complex relationships that surround her.

      Characters
      Esme is in a home which is shutting down and her next of kin is listed as Iris. The home contact Iris to ask her what she wants them to do with Esme and Iris is surprised as she has never heard of her great aunt before. Kitty (Iris's grandmother) is suffering with senile dementia and is in a home and Iris Mother lives away (and doesn't really feature in the book) and is another person unaware of Esme's existence.

      Narrators
      Some of the chapters focus on the day to day parts of Iris's life, but the really interesting chapters are Esme's memories of her childhood in India and then moving to Scotland. Her relationship with her sister Kitty is difficult but that's because their personalities are so different. When Esme is left alone with her nurse and her baby brother dies in her arms, the trouble begins and Esme is banned from talking about her brother. The chapters that are narrated by Kitty are not fully formed sentences, just snippets which give insight into some of the events Esme introduces to her narrative.

      The family
      Esme and Kitty live with strict parents in a world where children are quiet and do not have opinions or talk. Their mother is keen to have both her girls married off but Esme would prefer to finish school and have a good education than go chasing boys. Kitty is skittish and puzzled by Esme's reluctance to perform as debutante yet does little to help her when she suspects she may have competition for a particular boy's affections.

      My thoughts
      This book was brilliant and really kept me guessing throughout. I felt that Iris was a bit of a cold fish yet she was compelled by an unnamed force to do the right thing by her great aunt and help her out (even though she tells herself it is a temporary measure). The storyline between Iris and her lover was a bit weak and really didn't interest me in this book. It was more the intrigue of the two sisters that formed the best part of the story. I loved Esme's character and how beautifully mannered she is despite her 60 years in captivity. She reminded me of a little bird with bright eyes looking for the slightest bit of fun wherever she could get it. At 80 years old she walks into the wind enjoying the feeling on her body rather than shivering with the cold and her first request as a free woman is to go and see the sea so that she can have a paddle in it.

      Final word
      I would recommend this book as an eye opener and one that really bridges the decades in a believable manner. It is shocking that within the past century people have been hospitalised at the whim of others and that people would turn a blind eye to this happening. The last section of the book passed in a blur for me and I was turning the pages in a frenzy to find out what happened. I forgot to cook the tea I was so immersed and thinking just a few more pages... for those who are thinking by now 'I might read this' I would urge you to do so as it is worth it at the end. Top marks from me for this book.

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        12.01.2012 13:34
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        A book that I would thoroughly recommend!

        "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" is a modern fiction book by author Maggie O'Farrell. You can buy a copy of the book online at www.amazon.co.uk for around £5. There is also a kindle edition available to buy for around the same price. (Prices as @ January 2012).


        * SYNOPSIS OF THE BOOK *

        Iris is a young woman who receives notification out of the blue that her great-aunt, a lady called Esme Lennox, is about to be released from a Psychiatric Unit, where she has been imprisoned against her will since her childhood. As Iris is her next of kin, the responsibility for Esme's welfare and care sits with her.

        "Iris has never even heard of Esme Lennox and the one person who should know more, her grandmother Kitty, seems unable to answer Iris's questions. What could Esme have done to warrant a lifetime in an institution? And how is it possible for a person to be so completely erased from a family's history....?"


        * MY OPINION *

        I really enjoyed this book and found it quite an enchanting read. I particularly liked the way the book was written between the past and the present, so it felt like I was learning a little about such an interesting era in the past (the 1930s) which I found quite intriguing. I also thought that the author intertwined both these timelines perfectly, without ever baffling or confusing the reader. The story is written in such a way that the audience is entirely captivated by the story itself, rather than being aware of any sort of 'jolt' back to the present day or being thrust into the depths of the past. The time differences are stark and obvious to the reader, but our transportation back and forth between them is extremely subtle and completely fascinating.

        The characters in the book are all quite interesting in their own way, and I enjoyed 'getting to know them' as it were. I felt a pang of sympathy towards Esme which I felt was recurring again and again as I got further into the book whilst I was learning more about her past and in particular her childhood. I also felt real sympathy for Esme when I was reading the parts of the book that reflected on her time living in the asylum, and I thought that the author purposefully used great imagery and highly descriptive prose during these sections of the book to convey these feelings in the reader. This method worked beautifully.

        I felt that all of the characters in the book were given enough 'depth' to them to make them believable - and as likeable as they needed to be - and I didn't feel that any of the main characters were lacking anything at all. I did think that perhaps the author left one aspect of Iris's relationships unanswered at the end of the book, but I do think that perhaps this was intentional, and the author intends the reader to 'fill in the gaps' as it were.

        I have heard very mixed reports about this book, but most people I know who have read it have really enjoyed it. Some of the criticism I have come across is in relation to the ending of the book, and I believe that it has disappointed some readers for being 'too abrupt'. I personally DID find the ending of the book to be quite abrupt, but I didn't find that this was in any way negative, or at all disappointing. My personal opinion is that the author wanted to build a climatic ending and thus deliver it to the reader in quite a shocking way, and boy, did she pull it off. It's been quite a long time since I've read a book that has left me as surprised - or shocked - as this one did, and it was a very welcome discovery! I found that the impact of the ending, and the shocking events that we have learned leading up to it, accumulated fully and resulted in a firework-ending that is a very rare gem in my opinion. I think the author has shown incredible skill in her ability to compose such a clever story with such a high-impact ending, and to write in this way and have it deliver such an impact on the reader is really quite incredible to my mind, and praise is due indeed for the author's immense skill at delivering all of this within such an intriguing story to boot.

        There is quite an eerie tone evident throughout the book, although I can't quite put my finger on it exactly. Perhaps it is because the ghosts of Esme's past are so often revisited in the present time, and she herself has had to face so many demons in her lifetime? Either way, it gave a real atmospheric edge to the book that worked well with the plot and characters overall, and it really provided a very interesting backdrop throughout the book.

        I cannot recommend this book highly enough and I found it was a really fascinating read that had me hooked from the first page. I really struggled to put the book down, such was the captivating story and the mystery involved in Esme's past and subsequent disappearance. The last couple of chapters in the book were the icing on the cake, and the explosive ending worked wonderfully with the rest of the book. I found that the story has stayed with me for some time after reading it, which is a rare occurrence for me personally and I would wholeheartedly recommend it as a result.

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          27.08.2010 15:27
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          A book you won't be able to put down

          The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is the fourth novel by Maggie O'Farrell.

          **What is it about?**
          This book, based in Edinburgh, focuses on a young lady called Iris who runs a vintage clothes shop. Suddenly one day she receives a letter telling her that her great aunt Esme Lennox is about to be released from a psychiatric hospital. The only problem is Iris has never heard of her "great-aunt" and her grandmother Kitty is unable to answer any questions regarding Esme.
          The story unfolds as Iris tries to discover the mystery behind Esme Lennox, why she was in hospital for so long and why nobody seems to know her....

          **So is it any good?**
          This book is fantastic, from the minute you pick it up it is nearly impossible to put down again, while you are reading it you, along with Iris, are looking for answers. The narrative is very gentle and flows easily. It is split into Iris's story and also a narrative from when Esme was a little girl. This allows your interest to be held throughout the story.

          It will keep you guessing until the very end.

          It is available on Amazon for extremely cheap prices which don't do it justice! I will definitely be reading this book again and recommending it to my friends.

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          07.08.2009 14:12
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          Maggie O'Farrell's latest novel is a beautifully written, fascinating story

          The mental institution that housed Euphemia Esme Lennox since she was 16 is closing down. After over 60 years being there, Esme has almost no relatives that can be called upon to help. The one person they find is her great-niece, Iris Lockheart. The problem is that Iris didn't even know Esme existed, so she has a double dilemma - what to do with her elderly great-aunt, and how can she find out why the family never mention her. This is the basis for Maggie O'Farrell's novel "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox".

          The phrase "once in a blue moon" comes to mind when I think about this book. I say that because it is only that often that one finds a truly original writer and a truly beautifully written book that feels so right. Furthermore, not since I first read Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient" have I felt so excited about an author. Of course, this makes reviewing the book all the more difficult, since all my enthusiasm may not give my readers the right impression of this book. But then again, how can I not review a book that I've fallen so much in love with?

          The first thing you'll notice about this book is the beauty of the prose. O'Farrell uses deceptively simple language to paint pictures of the action. The opening paragraph describes two girls at a dance, and immediately we know how different these two girls are in personality. Also within that paragraph we discover this is a flashback, with the next paragraphs bringing us into present day as smoothly as a perfectly faded-in movie scene. No long explanations, no descriptions to plod through, just unadorned words, all presented in a straightforward and clear fashion.

          Within the first few pages, we already feel that we know quite a bit about Esme, and both her past in India and Scotland as well as her present in the asylum. Here's someone who was headstrong and independent at a time when young girls were supposed to be ladylike. But today, she's locked up with some pretty crazy people, and we see that Esme is also an old woman, clutching at the memories of those painfully few years of youth and freedom, and she seems far more trapped than insane.

          Then, only a few pages later, when there's a break in the text, we are introduced to Iris and her own less than trouble-free life. We quickly realize that Iris' problems are going to be compounded with being responsible for this heretofore unknown great-aunt that even her mother in Australia has never heard of. We're swiftly apprised of Iris's affair with a married man, along with her unusual (almost incestuous) closeness to her (also married) step-brother. We're also informed that her father died when she was young and she owns a second-hand shop. What's more, the only link to this mysterious new relative is Iris' Alzheimer-ridden grandmother, Kitty, Esme's sister. All this is done with a frugal economy of prose that is stunningly woven within Esme's parts of the story - and you haven't even gone through 30 pages yet!

          Throughout the book, the story is put together like a perfectly choreographed ballet, with each of the main dancers showing you their steps only when the time is right. O'Farrell does this with many methods, and using mostly third-person certainly helps us feel we have an overview of everything that is unfolding here. One thing that is particularly unique is how she cuts between parts of her story by stopping the narration in mid-thought and then immediately picking up with someone else, also in mid-thought. This may sound confusing, but by the time she starts doing this in the story, we know these characters so well, we can quickly figure out who is the focus in each bit. This technique also points up Kitty's Alzheimer's, Esme's grappling to preserve her sanity and memories, and even Iris's puzzling to discover the truth behind their histories. All this comes together in an amazing "pas-de-trois" climax between these three women that, while you may have guessed some of it, brings us to a shocking conclusion.

          One of the best elements of this book is that after that climax, it doesn't then start tying up all the loose ends for a nice, neat package. That would have been totally contradictory to the rest of the book's style. I can safely say that this story finishes with one of the most perfect endings I've read in a very long while. The only other element of this book I want to mention is the title, which actually is more meaningful than it seems. This "vanishing act" is not only an indication of Esme's being made to "disappear" but it also doubles as one of Esme's own defense mechanisms - as when things are unpalatable to her, she withdraws from her surroundings. This is very realistic especially if you consider Esme's institutionalization as having probably been unwarranted, combined with other elements you'll only discover if you read the book.

          And read the book, I must say, you really should. This is the best, most artistic and original piece of writing I've read in a very long time. The characters are drawn in both gentle and swift strokes, revealing far more about them in few words than other authors do in whole volumes. The story line is as fascinating as a mystery novel, and equally as exciting to see how it's all pieced together. The language is both beautiful and unpretentious, making the less than 300 pages just fly by. The only drawback with this book is that you'll want to both gobble it up, while also wanting to savour each and every word. This is a book I'm certainly going to re-read, and an author I'm now going to buy more of - and soon! After all that, I couldn't give it less than a full five stars out of five.

          Davida Chazan © August, 2009

          ~~~~~
          Technical Stuff:

          This book can be purchased new on Amazon for £4.99 or used from £0.01.

          Maggie O'Farrell has her own website which can be found at http://www.maggieofarrell.com/ where you can download a chapter preview of this book, as well as listen to an audio clip of the book. There's also background information about her, as well as an interview with her and upcoming events.
          ~~~~~

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            11.09.2008 18:47

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            Hightly reccomended

            The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is an adept and cleverly written novel which takes place over three main time periods and involves three main characters. This complex and interesting story begins in modern day Scotland, where a young, very modern woman named Iris is portrayed in her shop with an unsympathetic attitude and hints of an unstable family upbringing. O'Farrell then unravels the ties and loose ends of her history, and introduces the reader to her grandmother, Kitty, who suffers from severe Alzheimer's, and her secret great-aunt, Esme, who has been locked away in a mental institution since adolesence for reasons left unclear until the climatic ending. As the action unfolds in the present day and the daughter is forced to house her supposedly insane great-aunt, we begin to see the world from the point of view of Esme herself, with glimpses of her past in colonial India and post-war Scotland, and of Kitty who's thoughts are less structured and reflect the disease as it ravages her mind. A worthy effort from O'Farrell, this book will not fail to leave you clinging to every word.

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            15.08.2007 21:32
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            An unusual story which is worth reading

            --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

            This is a fictional account of a woman who spent 60 years in a mental institution for no better reason than she was rather eccentric and unconventional in a way which her 1930s conformist family considered to be unacceptable. It is made all the more poignant and relevant because it is now known that many men and more women actually suffered this fate in the first half of the twentieth century, being consigned to asylums by their families when young and then forgotten. The plight of many only really came into the public arena when such institutions were closed in favour of community care in the 1990s.

            Esme’s roots are in colonial India in the 1930s and the first really significant event of her life occurs when her parents and sister, Kitty ,six years her senior, travel up country to a house party leaving Esme and her baby brother, Hugo, in the care of their Ayah. Bored and hot outside, Esme goes to the cool of the nursery but there she finds her Ayah dead and the baby cold and unresponsive in his cot. Both have been the victims of typhoid fever. She shuts herself in the library and cradles the baby for three days until her parents return when they have to prise the baby from her grasp.

            After this her mother, seemingly oblivious of Esme’s suffering, will hardly speak to or look at the little girl as her presence appears to be an ever present reminder of this family tragedy. Her father is a remote and authoritarian figure and Esme’s only solace throughout her childhood is the affection and understanding she receives from Kitty.

            The family return home to Edinburgh and here the girls are expected to adjust to a very different way of life with many more conventions and constraints. Esme does not adapt well and, as she grows up, her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic contrasting sharply with her sister who embraces all the prevailing acceptable social mores and fast becomes the model daughter her parents expect of her.

            At 16, Esme does not want to leave school but aspires to a university education, has no interest in boys or marriage prospects and does not take easily to social niceties and small talk, preferring to be ensconced in a book when forced along to tea dances rather than acting prettily to attract suitors. Following a tragic and brutal experience at a New Year’s Eve party, she becomes increasingly withdrawn and apparently suffers, what we would recognise today, as a nervous breakdown. Eventually she is consigned to Cauldstone, a mental institution, following Kitty’s “ betrayal”, under some family pressure, of a confidence.

            Sixty years on and Kitty herself is in a residential care home suffering from advanced Alzheimers, when the Cauldstone trustees contact her granddaughter, Iris. Cauldstone is closing and they are enquiring whether she will be willing to take on the care of Esme Lennox as she has power of attorney over her grandmother’s affairs. Up to this point, Iris had been totally unaware of Esme’s existence. Embroiled in her own problems (an ongoing affair with a married man and enduring feelings for her step brother which she has long tried to suppress), Iris is at first wary of becoming involved with the stranger, introduced into her life as her Great Aunt. However, on meeting Esme, she finds a woman who, although completely institutionalised by this time, has grace ,charm and a naivety and directness which she warms to. Rather than leaving her at a seedy hostel, Iris takes her in and determines to unravel her history and the reasons behind her grandmother’s lifelong secrecy on the subject.

            The story of the two sisters gradually unfolds through details uncovered by Iris’s researches, the returning but confused memories of Esme and the disjointed thoughts of Kitty (told in the first person) as they entertwine throughout the book. Switching between the heart warming and heart rending, India and Edinburgh, past and present, sanity and insanity, sisterly love and sibling rivalry, loyalty and jealous betrayal, guilt and self justification, this beautifully constructed story draws the reader in as it builds to the eventual reunion of the sisters and the harrowing finale which I found to be rather abrupt and very confusing. Without wishing to be responsibile for any spoilers I can only say that I think I know what happens but it is not too clear and I am left wondering if this is a lack in my own grey cells, a defect in the author's narrative or a deliberate blurring on her part!

            Maggie O’Farrell’s lyrical style (this is her fourth book) has been criticised as “overblown” In the past and her writings about love have caused her past works to be labelled as “ chick lit’s second cousin” but I found this to be far from the case in her latest offering. Even though some descriptions of Iris’s everyday life could be labelled as prosaic, they come as a welcome relief, giving the reader a brief grounding in reality between the incidents of high drama in Kitty’s and Esme’s life stories. I am also certain that this work could be studied on many levels. For example, those interested in feminist issues could fruitfully explore this text and find relevant themes. However I just enjoyed it (despite my final confusion) and would recommend it as a totally absorbing and gripping good read and can do no better than echo the sentiments of the Times critic who described the book as “almost ridiculously pleasurable…. shocking, heartbreaking and fascinating.”

            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
            Published by Headline “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox” is available in hardback (rrp £14.99, present Amazon price is £8.65), paperback ( rrp £7.99 present Amazon price, £3.99) and audio cd ( rrp £17.99.)

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