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Excerpt from Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Instructions for a Heatwave

by Maggie O'Farrell

Instructions for a Heatwave
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2013, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2014, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker

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No, she couldn't have done any more. And yet Michael Francis had given his children the most English of English names. Not even an Irish middle name, she'd asked. She wouldn't allow herself to think about how they were growing up heathen. When she'd mentioned to her daughter-in-law that she knew of a lovely Irish-dance school in Camden, not far from them, her daughter-in-law had laughed. In her face. And said—what was it?—is that the one where you're not allowed to move your arms?

About Aoife, of course, the less said the better. She'd gone off to America. Never called. Never wrote. Living with somebody, Gretta suspects. Nobody has told her this; call it a mother's instinct. Leave her alone, Michael Francis always says, if Gretta starts to question him about Aoife. Because she knows Michael Francis will know, if anyone does. Always as thick as thieves, those two, despite the age gap.

The last they'd heard from Aoife was a postcard at Christmas. A postcard. A picture of the Empire State Building on it. For the love of God, she'd shouted, when Robert handed it to her, is she not even able to stretch to a Christmas card, now? As if, she'd continued to shout, I'd never given her a proper upbringing. She'd spent the better part of three weeks sewing a communion dress for that child and she'd looked like an angel. Everybody said so. Who'd have thought then, as she'd stood on the church steps in her white dress and white lace ankle socks, veil fluttering in the breeze, that she'd grow up so ungrateful, so thoughtless that she'd send a picture of a building to her mother to mark the Christ Child's birthday?

Gretta sniffs as she dips her knife into the red mouth of the jam pot. Aoife doesn't bear thinking about. The black sheep, her own sister had called her that time, and Gretta had flown off the handle and told her to mind her bloody tongue, but she has to concede that Bridie had a point.

She crosses herself, says a swift novena for her youngest child under her breath, under the ever-watchful eye of Our Lady, who looks down from the kitchen wall. She cuts another slice of bread, watching the steam vanish into the air. She will not think about Aoife now. There are plenty of good things to focus on instead. Monica might ring tonight—Gretta had told her she'd be near the phone from six. Michael Francis had as good as promised to bring the children over this weekend. She will not think about Aoife, she will not look at the photo of her in the communion outfit that sits on the mantelpiece, no, she will not.

After putting the bread back on the rack to air for Robert, Gretta eats a spoonful of jam, just to keep herself going, then another. She glances up at the clock. Quarter past already. Robert should be back by now. Maybe he bumped into someone and got talking. She wants to ask him will he drive her to the market this afternoon, after the crowds heading to the football stadium have dispersed? She needs a couple of things, some flour, a few eggs wouldn't go amiss. Where could they go to escape the heat? Maybe a cup of tea at that place with the good scones. They could walk down the street, arm in arm, take the air. Talk to a few people. It was important to keep him busy: ever since the retirement, he can become brooding and bored if confined to the house for too long. She likes to organize these outings for them.

Gretta goes out through the living room into the hall, opens the front door and walks out onto the path, sidestepping that rusting carcass of a bicycle Robert uses. She looks left, she looks
right. She sees next door's cat arch its back, then walk in mincing, feline steps along the wall, towards the lilac bush, where it proceeds to scratch its claws. The road is empty. No one about. She sees a red car caught mid-maneuver, farther up the road. A magpie keens and moans overhead, wheeling sideways in the sky, wing pointing downwards. In the distance, a bus grinds up the hill, a child trundles on a scooter along the pavement, someone somewhere turns on a radio. Gretta puts her hands on her hips. She calls her husband's name, once, twice. The flank of the garden wall throws the sound back to her.

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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