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[590] Instructions For A Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell


” 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]

[402] The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell

” She fought like a crazed thing. She fought to live, she fought to come back. She has always wanted to tell him this, in some way. She tried. She would like to say to him, Theo, I tried. I fought because I didn’t see ow I could leave you. But I lost. ” (315)

The Hand That First Held Mine, in alternating chapters, tells the stories of two unwed women, spanned over half a century, who face the challenge of parenthood for which they are not prepared. Hedged by her parents’ genteel country life, fueled by a viscerally rebellious nature, Lexie Sinclair plans her escape to London. The stubborn but smart girl is determined to find meaning in her life. A girl like Lexie, who refuses to apologize for walking through the door reserved for men at the university, is meant to challenge social and gender conventions. She does go far, thriving for independence from a male-dominant society that late 1950s Britain was.

Lexie watches all this. She takes it all in. Everything she sees seems freighted with significance . . . Lexie drinks it in, every detail, with a feeling between panic and euphoria: this is perfect, this is all perfect, it couldn’t be more perfect, but what if she can’t remember it all, what if even the tiniest element were to slip from her? (70)

Accidental encounter with Innes Kent, journalist and art critic, saves her from a life of ennui and lack of inspiration. He’s her one-way ticket to London,a world of excitement. Their affair, love-at-first-sight but genuine, coincides with her moving up in the ranks at the magazine he edits, but an unforeseen tragedy changes her life forever. Loss of Kent leaves Lexie to fend for herself. When she begins the career as a reporter in Paris four years later, she becomes a single mother to a boy, refusing to get married to Felix Roff, a BBC war correspondent.

Half a century later, Elina, a painter, faces her own struggle: she recently has a son with her boyfriend, and with whom she struggles to recalibrate their relationship as it evolves into parenthood. As Elina suffers from bouts of amnesia, loneliness and maternal anxiety, Ted is swept by flashes of old memories that develop into panic-attack, as f having a baby leads him to relive infancy.

This keeps happening, Ted finds, and more since Jonah was born. Flashes of something else, somewhere else, like radio static or interference, voices cutting in from a distant foreign station. He can barely hear them but they are there. A hint, a glimpse, a blurred image, like a poster seen from the window of a speeding train. (175)

Maggie O’Farrell’s poetic prose truly brings Lexie Sinclair alive. In her pursuit of a rewarding career and freedom from men and conventions, she is also confronted by change—especially sudden deep, unprepared-for change, and the ways in which an instant can change a life forever. Compared to Lexie’s, portrayal of Elina and Ted is more lackluster. As the stories of these lives unfold at their own pace with grace and heart-ache, the unannounced twists and tragedies, which eventually lift the opaque curtain and reveal the link between two generations, the slowness is justified. Ted’s search for answers to his panic-attack and flashbacks not only reveals that key connection but imparts into the novel a poignant beauty. A beauty of maternal love. The slow-churned plot really haunts me. O’Farrell knows how to pull readers’ emotional strings but not readily reveals what is around the next bend. The Hand That First Held Mine is going to be a memorable book because it shows how fate entwines an ordinary woman to people who forever antagonize her. It explores what it means to have a career and sustain parenthood for a single mother whose scope in life is ahead of her time. It also afford an insights into the working of a child’s memory.

341 pp. Softcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]