Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review - Instructions for a Heatwave by: Maggie O'Farrell

Title: Instructions for a Heatwave
Author: Maggie O'Farrell
Publisher: Knopf
Pages: 304
Format: Epub
Source: Personal purchase

Sophisticated, intelligent, impossible to put down, Maggie O’Farrell’s beguiling novels—After You’d Gone, winner of a Betty Trask Award; The Distance Between Us, winner of a Somerset Maugham Award; The Hand That First Held Mine, winner of the Costa Novel Award; and her unforgettable bestseller The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox—blend richly textured psychological drama with page-turning suspense. Instructions for a Heatwave finds her at the top of her game, with a novel about a family crisis set during the legendary British heatwave of 1976. 

Gretta Riordan wakes on a stultifying July morning to find that her husband of forty years has gone to get the paper and vanished, cleaning out his bank account along the way. Gretta’s three grown children converge on their parents’ home for the first time in years: Michael Francis, a history teacher whose marriage is failing; Monica, with two stepdaughters who despise her and a blighted past that has driven away the younger sister she once adored; and Aoife, the youngest, now living in Manhattan, a smart, immensely resourceful young woman who has arranged her entire life to conceal a devastating secret.

Maggie O’Farrell writes with exceptional grace and sensitivity about marriage, about the mysteries that inhere within families, and the fault lines over which we build our lives—the secrets we hide from the people who know and love us best. In a novel that stretches from the heart of London to New York City’s Upper West Side to a remote village on the coast of Ireland, O’Farrell paints a bracing portrait of a family falling apart and coming together with hard-won, life-changing truths about who they really are.

My thoughts:

In 1976, there was a heatwave that took over the UK, and especially in June and July, the temperature went over 36C and stayed there for a long time. Especially during the summer and fall of 1975 and 76, there was immense drought. It was at a point where there was no rain fall at all in some parts of the UK. As a result of this, food prices went record high when crops died.* And, the father of the Riorden family went out to buy the newspaper and didn't come back... That's where our story starts. 

Instructions for a Heatwave is the 6th novel by Irish author Maggie O'Farrell. I should say right from the beginning that I'm looking very much forward to reading the rest of her work. I can also say though that the subject-matter of the book wasn't my favorite part. Here's how I can summarize it in one sentence: it takes place during the drought I've mentioned above, and it's the story of a mother and her children looking for the father who took off and didn't come back. 

Gretta Riorden, the mother, was born and raised in Ireland. She's a very colorful character, still hanging on tight to her Catholic upbringing. She talks loudly and even has conversations with inanimate objects. The oldest son is Michael Francis, then there's Monica, and the Aofie (Irish for Eva) is the youngest and really way much younger than both her siblings. 

When we first start getting to know the family, Michael Francis lives close to his parents with his wife and two children, working as a teacher. Monica has been divorced once, is living with her new husband and trying to make the husband's kids to love her. Aofie, on the other hand, has left London and is living in New York City, working as the assistant of a famous, successful photographer. She is also keeping it as a secret from everyone else that she never learned how to read. The father, Robert Riorden, leaves to get the newspaper one day and doesn't come back. This is the incident that brings the entire family together: the quest to locate their missing father. Like I've said, I wasn't very crazy about the subject-matter...

If you ask me why I didn't just leave the book and move onto something else...

O'Farrel has a good eye for details and shows this to the reader in every page. However, unlike most authors who do like a good detail or two, she doesn't use them to describe tangible things; she uses them to create atmosphere and emotion, also dropping little clues about the characters themselves here and there. For example, when Gretta takes out the crafts she's abandoned a long time ago, you know she's restless. Monica's mind keeps drifting off to her sister Aofie even though she herself doesn't seem to understand why. Michael Francis gets mad at his mother because they always seem to "leave Monica alone" and bother him instead. With these clues, we really get an in depth feeling of the characters' emotions, what they're feeling at certain times and how they might react to something later on. Another example... Here's how O'Farrell explains Monica and Aofie's relationship, the sisters who shared a room before they both left home:

If you sleep near someone, night in, night out, breathing each other's air, it is as if your dreams, your unconscious lives become entangled, the circuits of your minds running close to each other, exchanging information without speech.

I was rather excited when I read this because I know from experience, having shared my room with my sister when we were little, that this does indeed happen. O'Farrell is very crafty in switching back and forth between past and future that you just take a smooth ride in time, finding out more and more secrets and realizing why the characters are the way they are.

I still had some questions left when the book was over. Like, why did the father chose that day and time to take off? Some of the "unusual" behaviors seem to be tied to the abnormal heat throughout the book. Is that it? Did the heat cause him to act out of character? I don't think this was really answered in the book, but it will also make it a book that I will find myself thinking about from time to time.

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