Instructions for a Heat Wave by Maggie O’Farrell


I was enthusiastic about the previous book of hers that I read, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, so was excited at the prospect of reading Maggie O'Farrell's new one. I learned about it from the review by Tony''s Book World.

The story unpacks the family of Gretta and Robert and their three adult children and reaches back to Robert's brother in Ireland. This Irish family lives in London and the story opens in 1976 when the father has disappeared. In this crisis the difficulties of the various family members come to the fore: the clashes between the sisters, Gretta's reliance on pills, the problems between the son and his wife. At the same time as they express their exasperation, their love of each other and strong bonds are also in evidence. Perhaps the most compelling of the three children is Aiofe, the youngest daughter, a difficult child whose dyslexia caused her never to learn to read which she has kept secret. She has made her way to New York and by her cleverness and ability to memorize, is successful as a world renown photographer's assistant, but expects to have her secret revealed when the folder of contracts and checks is uncovered. 

The whole gang travels by night ferry to Ireland in response to the report of the father being spotted there. While Gretta does see Robert's dying brother, Robert himself never makes an appearance. Except for this absent family member, the mysteries and secrets and trials of the others are uncovered and surprisingly resolved, at least momentarily. 

The setting of time and place (1976, London, a bit in New York, fleetingly in Ireland), seemed of secondary importance. The heat wave was mentioned multiple times to no major effect. It did seem to be 1976 in New York, given the character Gabe who can only be marginally employed as he has refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War. The problems for the Irish Catholics in London is a theme of Gretta, which would have been very real for someone arriving in the 1950s when she and Robert would have arrived.

I found the story to be engaging and was happy to be in the hands of a wonderful storyteller. It is available from the public and UVa libraries, as well as from Amazon and in audiobook format.

Maggie O'Farrell, Instructions for a Heatwave, Knopf, 2013, 304 pages. (I listened to the audiobook version).

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