” As for Robert, Gretta cannot begin to think. His absence is beyond understanding. She is so used to him being there, being around, that she can’t quite accept he has disappeared. She finds herself almost on the verge of speaking to him: this morning, she got two teacups down from the shelf. ” (Part II, 159)
What is a family without secrets? Maggie O’Farrell seems to be fascinated by the notion that the outwardly visible, superficial connection of kinship or marriage are often not the entire story. Often time what is left unsaid and concealed defines these intimate relationships. Secrets and lies pervade Instructions For A Heatwave, which begins with the mysterious disappearance of the patriarch, Robert Riordan, a bank retiree who clears out his savings and vanishes.
Aoife sits back on her heels and regards her mother and sister with naked hostility. She doesn’t know what it is about evenings with her family that make her like this—unbearable restless, that cooped-up, pent-up feeling, the sensation that she must escape, no matter what. (Part II, 272)
London is in the grip of a heatwave in summer 1976. The Riordan family is thrown into crisis by Robert’s inexplicable disappearance. As his wife, Gretta, reaches out to her children for help finding him, it becomes clear that each one of them, with their own secrets (shame?), may need as much help finding themselves. The meat of the novel is not so much the missing father as the troubles and troubled interconnections of the Riordan siblings, all of whom are holding certain secrets close to their chests.
The book is intriguing despite its quiet disposition. The patriarch’s disappearance is alarming but the family doesn’t show a sense of urgency. In fact, they are thrown together, under the confinement of a heatwave, in a way that allows them to behave unguardedly. Michael Francis, the oldest and only son, has an affair that has upended his heart and his already-troubled marriage. Monica, married and beleaguered stepmother to two young girls, has hidden a conflicted attitude toward parenthood. Roiled in her is another secret that drove a wedge between her and her younger sister, Aoife, who has been hiding her dyslexia since she was a child. But the biggest surprise revolves around the mother, Gretta, and her marriage, which reaches out to history and expounds on the meaning of brotherly love.
Given the premise and station in which the family finds itself, Instructions For A Heatwave is by no means depressing. Despite all the time the characters think about their shortcomings and brood about not being the people they are supposed to be, there is an omnipresnt sense of hope and redemption. O’Farrell’s writing is intense and crafted, drawing on complex dynamics of inter-sibling relationships. There’s a strange sense of lack of urgency over the father’s disappearance—and that he is also missing from the novel adds to the mystery. The book spans only three days but that the narrative proceeds through juxtaposition instead of linear plotting allows one to peek into the claustrophobic emotional closeness of the characters.
304 pp. Knopf. Hardcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]