Summary and book reviews of Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell

Instructions for a Heatwave

By Maggie O'Farrell

Instructions for a Heatwave
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  • Hardcover: Jun 2013,
    304 pages.
    Paperback: 6 May 2014,
    304 pages.

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Book Summary

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...

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 ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Maggie O'Farrell's investigation of the 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.   (Reviewed by Sarah Sacha Dollacker).

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Media Reviews
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.

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.

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.

Reader Reviews
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 ...   Read More

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,...   Read More

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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 ...

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