Reading guide for The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

By Maggie O'Farrell

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Hardcover: Oct 2007,
    256 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2008,
    256 pages.

    Publication Information

  • Rate this book


Buy This Book

About this Book

Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. How do the Dickinson and Wharton epigraphs at the beginning of the book relate to and set the stage for the novel? In what way do they put the book in the context of a larger literary tradition? Are there other books or authors who seem appropriate for epigraphs for this book? Why?

  2. Some of the earliest scenes Esme shares with the reader are those from her childhood in India. What do these scenes, particularly the ones on pages 4–8, reveal about Esme and her family? What do they reveal about their place in time and society?

  3. Iris notes on page 10 that sometimes she feels as though she is leading a “subterranean existence.” What does she mean? In what ways is this type of existence similar to or different from those of the other female characters?

  4. Iris and Alex seem to live in their own world, keeping others—even Alex’s wife and Iris’s lovers—on the outside. How does the author let you know that Iris doesn’t like Fran without coming out and saying so? How does she reveal that Alex and Luke don’t like each other? How do these revelations serve a function in the progress of the novel?

  5. O’Farrell’s novel is steeped in secrets. As the story of Esme and Kitty unfolds simultaneously with the story of Iris and Alex, O’Farrell offers clues about the true nature of the relationships between these characters. What effect does this have on your compassion for them? How do these two stories relate to each other?

  6. Why is Esme purportedly admitted to Cauldstone? Why do you think she was sent there, and never sent home? Is she really mad? Give examples from the book to support your opinion.

  7. Esme is both taken aback and fascinated by many things that Iris shows and tells her. What does Esme think is so remarkable about Iris? How are Iris and Esme similar? How are they different?

  8. On page 57, Iris discovers some of the more outrageous reasons that women in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were sent to “mad houses” like Cauldstone. Given how life was during that period, according to the novel’s descriptions, what do you think drove this trend? Do you think changes have occurred in our view and treatment of women who don’t “behave”? Why or why not?

  9. O’Farrell creates distinct voices for the three main characters in her novel and shifts between these points of view to tell her story. Why do you think the author made this choice? What do these different voices reveal about Iris, Esme, and Kitty? How does this technique affect your reading experience?

  10. Identify some of the various ways in which the title, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, relates to the story. What does Esme’s description of her “vanishing act” on page 91 symbolize?

  11. The references to Kitty stealing Esme’s jacket and the image of Esme holding on to baby Hugo are introduced early to distract the reader from the true secret of this story. When did you figure out what it was that Kitty really took from Esme? How did it affect your opinion of Kitty? Do you feel sympathy for her? Why or why not?

  12. How does Esme and Kitty’s secret change things for Iris? Is Alex right when he tells Iris, “It’s only ever been you and you know it’s only ever been me”? Now that the full weight of Esme’s tragedy has unfolded, do you think Iris will choose to be with him or with Luke?

  13. Alex and Luke are both married men in love with Iris. Do you think this is why they so dislike each other? Is there a difference between their situations? Do you think Iris really loves either one of them? Why or why not?

  14. What do you make of the ending? What do you imagine will happen to these characters after the last page is turned? Has the author satisfied your interest in these characters? Does there seem to be an overarching message?

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

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!
Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    •  
    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    •  
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    •  
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    •  
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    •  
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    •  
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
    •  

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Promise
    The Promise
    by Ann Weisgarber
    Canadian author, Lucy Maud Montgomery of Anne of Green Gables fame, once wrote that "...all things ...
  • Book Jacket: Black Moon
    Black Moon
    by Kenneth Calhoun
    The popularity of book-turned-movie World War Z and television series The Walking Dead points to a ...
  • Book Jacket: Hyde
    Hyde
    by Daniel Levine
    In Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the story ends ...

First Impressions

Members read and review books ahead
of publication. See what they think
in First Impressions!

Books that
expand your
horizons.

Visitors can view a lot of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only

Find out more.

Book Discussions
Book Jacket

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin

Published Apr. 2014

Join the discussion!

Win this book!
Win The Steady Running of the Hour

The Steady Running of the Hour

"Exciting, emotionally engaging and ambitious. I loved it!" - Kate Mosse

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

I T T O A Eye

and be entered to win..

Books thatinspire you.Handpicked.

Books you'll stay up all night reading; books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, books that will expand your mind and inspire you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.