Summary and book reviews of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

By Maggie O'Farrell

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2007,
    256 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2008,
    256 pages.

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Book Summary

In the middle of tending to the everyday business at her vintage clothing shop and sidestepping her married boyfriend’s attempts at commitment, Iris Lockhart receives a stunning phone call: Her great-aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, is being released from Cauldstone Hospital - where she has been locked away for over sixty years. Iris’s grandmother Kitty always claimed to be an only child. But Esme’s papers prove she is Kitty’s sister, and Iris can see the shadow of her dead father in Esme’s face. Esme has been labeled harmless - sane enough to coexist with the rest of the world. But Esme’s still basically a stranger, a family member never mentioned by the family, and one who is sure to bring life-altering secrets with her when she leaves the ward. If Iris takes her in, what dangerous truths might she inherit?

Maggie O’Farrell’s intricate tale of family secrets, lost lives, and the freedom brought by truth will haunt readers long past its final page.

Excerpt
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

Let us begin with two girls at a dance.

They are at the edge of the room. One sits on a chair, opening and shutting a dance-card with gloved fingers. The other stands beside her, watching the dance unfold: the circling couples, the clasped hands, the drumming shoes, the whirling skirts, the bounce of the floor. It is the last hour of the year and the windows behind them are blank with night. The seated girl is dressed in something pale; Esme forgets what the other in a dark red frock that doesn't suit her. She has lost her gloves. It begins here.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps it begins earlier, before the party, before they dressed in their new finery, before the candles were lit, before the sand was sprinkled on the boards, before the year whose end they are celebrating began. Who knows? Either way it ends at a grille covering a window with each square exactly two thumbnails wide.

If Esme cares to gaze into the distance-that is to say, at ...

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...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

The virtue of this book is its absorbing, suspenseful narration. The reader joins Iris on a kind of detective hunt for her family's true story, and O'Farrell masterfully times the clues to both gratify the hunger for answers and extend the mystery even further. Yet the book's downfall is how thoroughly it sacrifices character development to the rhythms of its engrossing plot. The book dips into the heads of its female protagonists—Iris, Esme, and Esme's sister Kitty—but all three remain stock characters without true interiority. Their thoughts and actions are calculated not to reveal how women in their situation might feel but, rather, to reveal the pieces of the puzzle with deft narrative control. This is a serious flaw in a work that aims to pierce the stereotype of the hysterical woman.   (Reviewed by Amy Reading).

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Media Reviews
Author Blurb Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is strange, sad, and a marvelously well-written novel. I would like to think that families only behave this way in books, but unfortunately betrayal, jealousy, and secrets are all too common in real life. It was a terrific book, I will be thinking about it for a long time.

Scotland On Sunday - Chitra Ramaswamy

It's powerful stuff. At other points, though, it all gets lost in its own tricksiness as it lurches back and forth from colonial India to 1930s Edinburgh and to the present day, swerving between characters' viewpoints with such speed that it occasionally induces literary motion sickness. To move things along O'Farrell sometimes has to resort to awkward phrases such as "And in her real-time life, she is there again."

The Scotsman - Amy Mathieson

With Esme and Kitty, O'Farrell has a hugely powerful story to tell, but at just under 250 pages the book feels a little too slight to carry such weight. Some of the impact of their story is damaged, too, by the focus on Iris and her less dramatic, less important, family experiences. But, ultimately, it is good to see a first-rate writer attempt something different, and if it doesn't always come off, that's part of the risk you take.

The Times (London) - Zoë Paxton

O'Farrell's characteristically lyrical writing (sometimes criticised as overblown) is here sparer, more elegant. In one touching scene Esme, sitting in the car with Iris, attempting to process her sudden emergence into the world, pretends to fall asleep because "she needs to think”. Iris reaches over and turns off the radio; this is “the single nicest act that Esme has witnessed in a long time. It almost makes her cry".

The Independent - Lesley McDowell

This triple-hander between Esme, Kitty and Iris's narratives could have become messy and confusing, but O'Farrell never relinquishes control, and her presentation of Kitty's voice, even more confused and fractured than that of Esme's, is a triumph. ..... It is also an exercise in narrative control that works beautifully, and sees O'Farrell raising her game considerably.

The New Stateman - Christie Hickman

The haunting final pages are among the finest O'Farrell has ever written. This, the most satisfying and least mannered of her novels, marks a significant leap forward both in narrative precision and imaginative skill.

The Guardian - Jane Gardam

The prose is spare, yet the Edwardian world it describes crosses two continents and is rich and clear as stained glass. It moves with ease between the mimosa trees of an Indian childhood and the iron-grey seas of Fife in old age. She can make the economical style seem slow, ruminative and rather old-fashioned ("Let us begin with two girls at a dance"), yet except when the host of minor characters occasionally becomes confusing, the story never flags. And it is a story so historically important that one ceases to think of "style" and "the novel" altogether.

The Telegraph - Amanda Craig

The sinuous intelligence with which we are led between the thoughts of the demented Kitty, the suffering Esme and the courageous Iris offers good, old-fashioned storytelling beneath a seamlessly modernist style. However, it is the unerring note of pure female anguish that makes this one to buy for the women in your life – especially if they are driving you mad.

Kirkus Reviews

Despite occasional opacity, this slow-building, impressionistic work amply rewards dedicated readers with a moving human drama.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. O'Farrell maintains a high level of tension throughout, and the conclusion is devastating.

Booklist - Deborah Donovan

A gripping read with superbly crafted scenes that will blaze in the reader's memory long after the novel is returned to the shelf.

Reader Reviews
reading woman

Crimes against women
This chilling novel falls in the category of crimes against and by women. Esme Lennox was "vanished" because she did not fit in with what was expected by her culture. Set in the present with the back story coming out bit by bit, the horror ...   Read More

Melissa

What is Madness?
Thoroughly enjoyed the mystery. The writing had potential to be very confusing, but Farrell did a great job of tying it all together. Says much about what behaviors we consider "Mad", maybe they are just abnormal - much like today's prolific ...   Read More

The Brit

An Unfavorable Review for The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
I rarely read book reviews before I buy a novel. I don’t like to be influenced by others in what I consider to be a personal experience. However, on this occasion I wish I had read a few of the reviews before purchasing the book. I gave this book a 1...   Read More

Majorbabs

Memorable, moving story
It's always good to be reminded of what today's women have won in terms of freedom, and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is one of the best choices. The story of Esme, who is released from hiding after many years, is one that will touch you and move ...   Read More

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Did you know?

  • The events in The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox are based on a real British policy which deinstitutionalized thousands of psychiatric patients beginning in 1990. Margaret Thatcher's Care in the Community program sought to end outmoded, Victorian-era mental institutions by releasing such patients back into their homes, their illnesses controlled by medication and individualized treatment rather than confinement. The program ended in 1998 after a series of highly-publicized crimes by former inmates. The British health secretary recalled many patients who were living without supervision and placed them back into residential treatment centers.
  • Mental institutions were a humane advance in the early ...

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