Sunday, August 10, 2014

Steaming Open a Family's Pandora's Box

"Instructions for a Heatwave" by Maggie O'Farrell


On the morning that the 1976 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 the freshly baked Irish soda bread his wife Gretta made. As soon as Gretta 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 is more concerned about winning over her two new stepchildren than her father's disappearance, and Aiofe, Gretta's youngest is all the way over in New York. When it finally 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 looking for him, they uncover some painful information about themselves and the past.

Of O'Farrell's novels to date, this one is probably the most character driven, although all her previous books had vivid characters. I'd even go so far as to say that 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 circumstances that she develops to bring these people together are secondary to the characters themselves. For instance, we get more back-story on each of these people than we do in most of her novels. This isn't distracting, since these vignettes are essential to understanding these characters, and meld perfectly into the story as they radiate around the action. This could have been a downfall for this book, since the action here is actually very minimalistic. Often when writers deal with many interacting personalities, an equal number of situations help bring these elements to the forefront. However, O'Farrell decided not to go that route; instead, became emboldened by this challenge, showing just how much she has grown as a writer.

Of course, with many people to deal with, not all characters 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 O'Farrell deals with the rest of the individuals in the family 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.

While reading this novel it occurred to me that, each reader will find a different character to 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 gaining recognition 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 similar to my experience. At that time, undiagnosed people who suffered from this disability let people think they were stupid and/or lazy, or hid their 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 usurped my favorite (Esme Lennox), nor did it make me cry like her previous novel, I still have to highly recommend it and give it at least four and a half stars out of five. 


"Instructions for a Heatwave" by Maggie O'Farrell is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. (This is a version of a review which originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)