Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Book Review: "Instructions for a Heatwave" by Maggie O'Farrell

This book surprised and charmed me far more than I expected it would.

London, 1976. The country is in the middle of a legendary heatwave, and the drought and mandated water restrictions have everyone on edge. One morning Gretta Riordan's husband, Robert, goes to get his newspaper, just like he does every morning since his retirement. Yet this time he doesn't come back, and he empties out his bank account on the way.

Gretta, a loud, emotional woman, has never met a crisis she couldn't wring for dramatic effect. She summons her three adult children—Michael Francis, a frustrated high school teacher who had dreamed of being a professor in America before the responsibility of marriage and children sidelined his ambitions, and who is trying to make sense of his wife's need for her own intellectual independence; Monica, the favorite child, struggling to deal with two stepdaughters who hate her; and Aoife, the baby, who fled to New York to escape her family and the truth about herself, and who is estranged from Monica for reasons she doesn't understand.

When the family comes together to understand why Robert left and where he could have gone, they find themselves falling into familiar patterns, and revisiting familiar hurts and resentments. Yet at the same time, they discover some shocking things about their parents' relationship, and about their own problems.

This is familiar territory we've seen in other novels, but Maggie O'Farrell draws you into this family and makes you care about them and what is happening to them, even as you may be frustrated with their behavior. As with many novels that focus on family dynamics, Instructions for a Heatwave is as much about the things we don't say to each other, the things we keep hidden or avoid touching on, as it is about the things that are said. These are appealing characters (for the most part) whose lives you get invested in, although it happens quietly and unexpectedly.

Because the fact that the book is set during a heatwave in 1976 is almost secondary to the story, there were a few things I found jarring from time to time, because I couldn't understand why they even were issues, and then I remembered when the story was taking place. But my periodic cognitive dissonance didn't affect my enjoyment of the story or O'Farrell's storytelling ability. It's one of those quiet books you enjoy a great deal.

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