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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 livesthe 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.
Excerpted from Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell. Copyright © 2013 by Maggie O'Farrell. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Maggie O'Farrell's novel Instructions for a Heatwave investigates family, lies, and the ways they intertwine. One morning, during England's record-breaking 1976 heat wave, Gretta Riordan sees her husband Robert off for his errands as she does most mornings since he retired. He does not return that day or the next. There is little preparation for his disappearance and the family is thrown into turmoil. Gretta and Robert's three children - Michael Francis, Monica, and Aoife (pronounced Ee-fuh) - are in their own tumultuous states and no one is prepared to search for Robert. Each of the siblings harbors a secret, and all of them struggle with the burden of being raised by Catholic parents with strict moral rules.
Michael Francis wonders if his wife Claire still loves him. His job as a high school history teacher is unfulfilling and a disappointment after his great plans of moving to America and pursuing a history Ph.D at one of the country's top universities were ended when he married. Claire, frustrated by her own failed dreams, has started to pursue an open-course history certificate, a program that Michael Francis believes is far beneath her. Claire and Michael Francis are at a crisis point in their marriage, and Robert's disappearance threatens a relationship already rocked by mistrust.
In contrast to Michael Francis, Monica is on her second marriage. She is married to Peter, who has two daughters. The daughters detest Monica, and she wonders why she tries so hard to live this challenging life with a man she barely understands. She hates the hulking Victorian farmhouse that Peter refuses to renovate and doesn't understand why he won't encourage his daughters to be kinder to her. In all, this second marriage is nothing like her first, when she was married to her high school sweetheart Joe. Monica and Joe were supposed to have the perfect life until their dream of having a family was destroyed. Monica wonders if her marriage to Peter, life in their mausoleum of a house and the rejection by his daughters is penance for decisions that were made while she was married to Joe.
While Michael Francis and Monica struggle to understand how to resolve their issues within the context of their current relationships, Aoife believes that there is little that can be done about hers. Aoife cannot read. She artfully keeps this fact hidden from everyone, and though it causes frustration and discomfort, she accepts her limitation. Aoife's childhood was challenging, she was often at odds with her mother who struggled to accept her, but she is the happiest of the three siblings. Aoife's move to New York takes her away from the pressure of her family and gives her the confidence to accept herself. This distance, something that Michael Francis and Monica have struggled to find, helps Aoife understand her own idiosyncrasies and those of her family. Despite Aoife's relative sense of balance compared to her siblings, however, the issue of her illiteracy looms. She has not been able to read contracts or deposit checks for her boss, a successful photographer who relies on Aoife's organizing skills. If her boss discovers the folder of ignored paperwork, Aoife could lose her job.
Circling around the mystery of Robert's disappearance and the siblings' various crises is the unrelenting heat. The novel does not dwell on the physical discomforts of the heat, and it becomes clear that the high temperature functions as a limiting factor in both the literal and figurative senses. The heat bears down on the characters, applying pressure to bring about change. Perhaps Robert would have remained at home if not for the heat, and without his disappearance none of his children would have been jarred from their constricting lives and forced to change. If the title of the novel were to be taken literally, and the novel read as an instruction manual about what to do in a "heatwave," it becomes clear that the solution is to air out dark corners of family life. It is by doing this, the story suggests, that family members can lead the life they were meant to lead.
Though the novel ostensibly hinges on the search for Robert, the true engine of the narrative is the three siblings' journeys of personal change. Robert's unexpected departure throws the image of the perfect family that Gretta has strived to create, out the window. With their parents' presentation of perfection no longer the guiding model for their own lives, the siblings are free to assess what really makes them happy. O'Farrell's investigation of these three characters, all related by blood but astoundingly different, creates a vibrant portrait of what it means to create the life you want, versus the life you were conditioned to have.
O'Farrell's novel is remarkable for its character development - each of them leaps off the page. Her flair for creating suspense is highlighted here in the slow unfolding of each player's story. Though the ending leaves some unanswered questions (such as why Robert chose to leave and how Clare and Michael Francis will resolve the trouble in their marriage), the novel is a delight. Fans of O'Farrell's earlier work will enjoy this newest addition from one of Britain's top writers.
Reviewed by Sarah Sacha Dollacker
Rated of 5
by Cloggie Downunder
A brilliant read
Instructions For A Heatwave is the sixth novel by British author, Maggie O’Farrell. On a July Thursday at the height of Britain’s 1976 heatwave, Robert Riordan goes out as usual for the morning paper but doesn’t return. When no trace of him can be found, his wife, Gretta calls her daughter in Gloucester, Monica, who is having a drama of her own. Eventually, Gretta’s son, Michael Francis manages to contact his younger sister, Aoife in New York, and the siblings come together at their family home to decide what is to be done. It is a gathering filled with tensions, as Aoife and Monica have been estranged for years. Not only that, but undercurrents flow as each character is dealing with shameful secrets of their own. While this could make for heavy going, the dialogue between the characters, the family dynamics and some moments of delicious irony provide a comic relief that lifts the story. As O’Farrell skilfully builds her story, the various mysteries, some from more than thirty years ago, unfold over four days. Abortion, dyslexia, divorce, betrayal, adultery, draft dodging, a dead cat, an Irish convent and a deep abiding love all feature. O’Farrell’s characters are interesting and complex; they are larger than life and so very real. Her prose is a joy to experience: the feel of the heatwave is expertly conveyed and the descriptions are wonderfully evocative. “And then, it seemed to Monica, the baby opened her mouth and started to scream and that she did not stop screaming for a long time. ……She screamed if laid flat, even for a moment…….her legs would work up and down, as if she was a toy with a winding mechanism, her face would crumple in on itself and the room would fill with jagged sounds that could have cut you, if you’d stood too close.” and “She cannot read. She cannot do that thing that other people find so artlessly easy: to see arrangements of inked shapes on a page and alchemise them into meaning.” are just two examples. A brilliant read.
Rated of 5
by Jan Zahrly
Instructions for a Heatwave
Every time I get to the end of a Maggie O'Farrell novel, I want to scream, “More. What happened next?” O'Farrell always leaves me hanging and Instructions for a Heatwave was no exception. This is a family book, about adult children's frustrations, about efforts to be the “best child” of the three, about running away, about marriage or non-marriage. The adult children's problems are the true basis of this story, not about their run-away father. And it ends up about their relationships with the mother.
Only near the end of the book do we start to learn of the giant hypocrisy of the mother. There is envy, pity, frustration and anger, too. The father disappears – no note, no information for the mother. He just does not come back from getting the newspaper. The three children start gathering near the mother, when they can pull away from their own family/relationship dilemmas. The two sisters are not speaking to each other and have been this way for three years. Wow, how can you hang on to conflict and misunderstanding with your own sister for three years?
When one of the sisters discovers that daddy-dearest has been sending a steady stream of money, every month, to “Assumpta,” things really start to fall apart. These adult children start figuring out what has been happening or not happening with their parents and with each other. The book starts in London in the middle of a heat wave with water rationing and ends in Ireland where the parents were born. And it ends in hope. I can not write anymore because it would spoil your reading.
The heatwave described in the novel is based on an actual one that took place in the summer of 1976 in Britain, which was preceded by a dry period that began the previous year. At the time this had been the driest 16-month period in over 250 years. Though there was some rain during that summer, it was so little and sporadic that it didn't make much of a dent. The reservoirs ran dry, companies in the Midlands (central England), were forced to shorten their work week, and many households were required to gather their water from communal hand pumps in the street. People were advised to "Save water, bathe with a friend," to do so in no more than five inches of water and to then reuse that bath water in the garden. Bricks were put in toilets so the flush tanks would then hold less water and therefore, conserve more. Owning a dirty car was a symbol of solidarity.
During the drought, the government issued 139 drought orders (regulations restricting water use), on behalf of the water companies, in specific areas throughout Britain. The hardest hit areas were East Anglia and Wales. At the height of the drought, the government reassigned the Sports Minister, Denis Howell, to act as Minister in Charge of Drought Co-Ordination. When the rain began to fall in October 1976, his insistence that the water restrictions remain in effect until the reservoirs had returned to normal levels made him very unpopular. The government wasn't the only regulator of water usage, however. A group of housewives in Surrey famously forced a golf course to turn off their sprinklers by harassing the maintenance men.
For many, 1976 stands out as the worst drought in recent memory, but the drought in 1995 was actually worse in terms of record-breaking heat. Though weather conditions in 1995 were comparable to those in 1976, the public was not as affected by drought order restrictions, because water companies had improved their methods of conserving and distributing water.
Picture from BBC
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