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The BookBrowse Review

Published May 21, 2014

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Instructions for a Heatwave
Instructions for a Heatwave
by Maggie O'Farrell

Paperback (6 May 2014), 304 pages.
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN-13: 9780345804716
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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 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.

Highbury, London

The heat, the heat. It wakes Gretta just after dawn, propelling her from the bed and down the stairs. It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs. The air in the kitchen is like a solid entity filling the space, pushing Gretta down into the floor, against the side of the table.

Only she would choose to bake bread in such weather.

Consider her now, yanking open the oven and grimacing in its scorching blast as she pulls out the bread tin. She is in her nightdress, hair still wound onto curlers. She takes two steps backwards and tips the steaming loaf into the sink, the weight of it reminding her, as it always does, of a baby, a newborn, the packed, damp warmth of it.

She has made soda bread three times a week for her entire married life. She is not about to let a little thing like a heatwave get in the way of that. Of course, living in London, it is impossible to get buttermilk; she has to make do with a mixture of half milk and half yogurt. A woman at Mass told her it worked and it does, up to a point, but it is never quite the same.

At a clacking sound on the lino behind her, she says, "Is that you? Bread's ready."

"It's going to be—" he begins, then stops.

Gretta waits for a moment before turning around. Robert is standing between the sink and the table, his large hands upturned, as if he's holding a tea tray. He is staring at something. The tarnished chrome of the tap, perhaps, the runnels of the draining board, that rusting enamel pan. Everything around them is so familiar, it's impossible sometimes to tell what your eye has been trained upon, the way a person can no longer hear the individual notes of a known piece of music.

"It's going to be a what?" she demands. He doesn't reply. She moves towards him and places a palm on his shoulder. "You all right?" She has, of late, been finding herself reminded of his age, the sudden stoop of his back, the look of mild confusion on his face.

"What?" He swings his head around to look at her, as if startled by her touch. "Yes." He nods. "Of course. I was just saying it's going to be another hot one today."

He shuffles sideways, just as she'd known he would, towards the thermometer, which clings, by a spit-moistened sucker, to the outside of the window.

It is the third month of the drought. For ten days now the heat has passed 90ºF. There has been no rain—not for days, not for weeks, not for months. No clouds pass, slow and stately as ships, over the roofs of these houses.

With a metallic click, like that of a hammer tapping a nail, a black spot lands on the window, as if pulled there by magnetic force. Robert, still peering at the thermometer, flinches. The insect has a striated underside, six legs splaying outwards. Another appears, at the other end of the window, then another, then another.

"Those buggers are back," he murmurs.

Gretta comes to see, jamming on her glasses. Together, they peer at them, transfixed.

Swarms of red-backed aphids have, in the past week, been passing over the city. They mass in trees, on car windscreens. They catch in the hair of children coming home from school, they find their way into the mouths of those crazy enough to cycle in this heat, their feet adhere to the sun-creamed limbs of people lying in their back gardens.

The aphids fling themselves from the window, their feet detaching at the same moment, as if alerted by some secret signal, and they disappear into the azure sky.

Gretta and Robert straighten up, in unison, relieved.

"That's them gone," he says.

She sees him glance at the clock on the wall—a quarter to seven. At precisely this time, for more than thirty years, he would leave the house. He would take his coat off the peg by the door, pick up his bag, call goodbye to them all, shouting and squawking in the kitchen, and slam the door behind him. He always left at six forty-five, on the proverbial dot, no matter what was happening, whether Michael Francis was refusing to get out of bed, whether Aoife was kicking up a stink about Godknowswhat, whether Monica was trying to take over the cooking of the bacon. Not his department, all that, never was. Six forty-five, and he was out the door, gone.

Full Excerpt

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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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. The weather referenced in the novel's title refers to the setting but also takes on symbolic or metaphorical significance. O'Farrell writes that "strange weather brings out strange behavior . . . [People] start behaving . . . not so much out of character but deep within it" (p. 103). What does she mean by this? Where do we see examples of this among the characters? How does the heat enhance or mirror the psychological drama of the story?

  2. Consider the various examples of siblings in the story. What are their relationships like? Are there many similarities among their relationships? Are the siblings very alike as characters? What problems or tensions are evident among them, and what causes this?

  3. In the opening scenes of the book, O'Farrell creates a sense of the routine and the mundane through a description of Gretta's and Robert's daily habits. It creates a sense of domesticity, but how does this sense of the routine also heighten the feeling of alarm over Robert's disappearance and affect our reaction to the revelations at the story's end?

  4. When we are introduced to Michael Francis, we find him thinking that "[h]e is, for a moment, exactly the person he is meant to be . . . There is no difference . . . between the way the world might see him and the person he privately knows himself to be" (p. 13). What does the author mean by this? Where do we find discrepancies in the book between who a character really is and who others see the character to be? What causes this dissonance?

  5. Examine the various representations of family and family structures in the book. Are they very similar? What does this tell us about marriage and family? About the characters? Most of the characters are, or have been, married. What were their reasons for marrying? How is marriage represented in the story? Are these unions mostly successful? What makes them successful or not?

  6. Why is Michael Francis so upset by his wife's haircut and enrollment in history classes?

  7. Pregnancy and birth are recurring subjects in the book; the loss that can be associated with them is also explored. Evaluate the scenes that portray pregnancy and birth: Gretta's births, Monica's loss, Michael Francis's children, and Aoife's pregnancy. What message does the novel seem to present about birth?

  8. Whose fault is it that Monica's secret was found out? How did Monica respond to the secret being revealed to her husband? What is your reaction?

  9. The characters reflect throughout the book on various events from their childhoods. What were some of the more memorable events, or events that had the greatest impact on them? What do these revelations seem to indicate about the impact of the past and its relationship to the present?

  10. Consider the various conflicts in the novel. There is the problem of Robert's disappearance, but other conflicts also begin to surface. Are these conflicts resolved? If so, how? How does the larger conflict unite or divide the characters? How does each character respond to conflict?

  11. Evaluate the structure of the book. How does it accommodate point of view? Does any single standpoint dominate the story? How does this affect our response to the characters and our interpretation of the story? How would our understanding of the story have been different if it was told in only one point of view?

  12. Evaluate the style of the book. Is O'Farrell's language simple or difficult or complex? What about the sentence structures? How does her style of writing work to create a sense of portraiture, albeit with words?

  13. Analyze O'Farrell's use of flashbacks as a literary device. The characters are constantly recalling moments and events from the past. This allows us to know the unknowable. What insight does it give us into the characters? What does we learn about subjects such as memory, history, and truth?

  14. Gretta tries to "keep Ireland alive" (p. 6) through trips to Ireland, Mass and communion, her cooking, and other customs. How do her children respond to her efforts? How does the book create a portrait of the complexities of tradition versus modernity? The characters are all living in different places–different countries, even. What might this say about contemporary living and the modern family?

  15. Consider the sense of time in the book. The story takes place over only a few days, yet we get a sense of the entire history of each character from childhood to the present day. How does O'Farrell accomplish this?

  16. Evaluate disappearance and estrangement as themes of the novel. While Mr. Riordan's disappearance takes center stage, instances of disappearance and escape are not limited to his character. What other examples do we find in the novel? What causes these disappearances? What causes the divisions between the characters that grow into estrangement? How could this be helped?

  17. What secrets do the characters keep from one another? Is one more surprising than another? If so, why? How do the characters react to the revelation of one another's secrets?

  18. Is Aoife's disability identified? Why or why not? How does her disability affect how other characters perceive her? How does it affect her life? Does anyone try to help? How does it influence readers' perception of her character?

  19. What does the novel tell us about tragedy and the ways in which we face tragedies? Does each character respond in the same way? Does the way that the characters deal with tragedy change throughout the story?

  20. How does this novel compare to O'Farrell's other works? What are some of the recurring themes? Is their treatment similar? Are there recurring character types or plotlines?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

In Instructions for a Heatwave, a crisis forces a family's members to evaluate their interpersonal ties.

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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

Vogue
Superlative . . . A reunion of far-flung siblings for a Mike Leigh-style extravaganza of reckonings and reconciliations.

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Riveting . . . Finely drawn . . . Once again, O’Farrell demonstrates her mastery at depicting strained relationships, skewed family loyalties, and the just reachable light at the end of the tunnel.

Kirkus Reviews
A skillfully written novel of manners, with quiet domestic drama spiced with fine comic moments. The payoff is priceless, too.

Booklist
A beautiful portrait of family life. The story really blossoms in the second half . . . where the family’s secrets and private feuds come raging forth so that the true healing can begin.

Publishers Weekly
An absorbing read from start to finish, through O'Farrell's vibrant prose, each character comes alive as more is revealed and the novel unfolds.

Library Journal
O'Farrell should be a household name.

The Guardian (UK)
Acutely observed…revelatory, redemptive, and moving…There is a deliciousness to this novel, a warmth and readability that render it unputdownable and will surely make it a hit. O'Farrell has done it again.

The Sunday Express (UK)
A literary event…evocative, articulate, and joyously readable…O'Farrell's talent for drawing intriguing but relatable characters is eclipsed only by a rare gift for description that is almost photographic in its imagery…An author at the top of her game.

The Independent on Sunday (UK)
Humorous, humane, and perceptive…O'Farrell depicts relationships with piercing acuity in haunting, intense prose…a deliciously insightful writer…Her sharp but humane eye dissects every form of human interaction.

Daily Mail (UK)
Thoroughly absorbing and beautifully written…A novel about what we say and what other people hear; about families; what we don't tell each other and what we do; the compromises and accommodations we make and what happens when we build our lives around half-truths.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 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 5 of 5 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.

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The Heatwave of 1976

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.

Signs encouraging water conservation 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

By Sarah Sacha Dollacker

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