Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

9780385349406_p0_v1_s260x420Family secrets are Maggie O’Farrell’s forte and her latest novel – Instructions for a Heatwave – combines her facility for everyday drama with shocking revelations. If you’ve read O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox or The Hand That First Held Mine, you know to raise your expectations for a surprising twist in the plot.

The heat in London is unbearable when Robert, a retired banker, decides to take a walk, but never returns, leaving behind his Irish chatterbox wife, three grown children, and a couple of grandkids. The story moves across London, Ireland, and New York City in 1976 – just before the electronic media made secrets archaic. As Aoife (pronounced ee-fa, the Irish “Eve”) returns from New York City to the London house to help her brother, Michael Francis, and sister, Monica, in the search for their father, Robert’s disappearance fades into the background as O’Farrell reveals the diverting background lives of each character. Everyone has a secret and no one is happy, except perhaps Gretta, the frantic mother who lives in denial. Michael Francis, the eldest son, is a frustrated Ph.D. wannabe who teaches history at a local grammar school and has recently had a one-night stand with a fellow teacher; Monica, divorced from the love of her life, cannot seem to assimilate into her second marriage with her new husband and his young daughters; Aoife, hides her dyslexia from everyone, including Gabe, her new lover, who sends her love notes she cannot decipher. Gretta has an irrational penchant for cleaning out shelves when stressed, and cannot seem to stop talking or giving unwanted advice.

After finding check stubs that date back fifteen years, the family takes the ferry to Cork, Ireland, in search of their father. Of course, there is another woman, but not in the way you may expect; the checks are sent to a convent. As Gretta reveals the mystery, the truth jolts the family – first into further chaos but eventually into redemption with an ending that renews faith in the ability of loved ones to come through for each other when needed. The family rallies and survives, but Robert is another story. He appears in the beginning and in the end, only as a phantom catalyst. I wonder what a good book group would conclude about his future – O’Farrell leaves it open.

I liked the way Maggie O’Farrell can take dramatic incidents and weave them into meaningful moments that connected to me. When she described Aoife breathing in the scents of her parents’ bedroom, it brought back the first time I returned to my childhood home after my father died, and anyone who has siblings will recognize the pride within the rivalry, the understanding and the annoyance. O’Farrell’s stories are dramatically intricate, and if you are looking for neatness and straight story lines O’Farrell cannot deliver. After all, family relationships are messy.

Related Review: The Hand That First Held Mine

The Story of Lucy Gault

Beginning during the Irish upheaval of the early twentieth century, William Trevor’s tale of a young girl left behind - The Story of Lucy Gault – has a lilting Irish tone that turns the consequences of political unrest and attitude into a haunting tale. If not for author Heather Barbieri’s list of best books, I would have missed it.

When Captain Gault, a veteran of the British army and landowner in the beautiful area of Lahardane in Ireland, shoots at a group of young men who have poisoned his dogs and are trying to burn down his house, he wounds one and his pastoral life in Ireland ends. Although he is not the criminal, he tries in vain to make restitution to the family of the wounded boy. Realizing the assaults will continue, he decides to leave Ireland and relocate to Britain with his wife and young daughter, Lucy.

Reluctant to leave the only home and friends she has known, Lucy runs away. When her vest and sandal are found near the water, she is presumed dead, and her distraught parents begin an anonymous pilgrimage to lose themselves.

If you like to be surprised, you will want to stop reading here – but do find this book. Trevor is an Irish author, so expect angst and depression along with the tale of loyalty, regret, love and forgiveness – short listed for the Man Booker Award in 2002.

Spoiler Alert:

A week later, Lucy, who broke her ankle and has been foraging in the woods, is found, but her parents have traveled on without a trace. Lucy stays on at the house and farm, with the help of the cook and groundskeeper who return to the house to live with her; the family Solicitor finances her simple lifestyle and initiates the futile search for Lucy’s parents. The story continues to follow Lucy’s self-imposed exile – waiting for her parents to return; the parents as they keep moving to forget the daughter they think they have lost; and the tortured life of the boy who was shot. As they meander through their lives, all have been irrevocably changed by the desertion of Lucy, and sadly forfeit opportunities for happiness in their own lives.

Lucy finds her own redemption in a simple life. In a surprising twist at the end, she manages an extraordinary act of forgiveness.  With lyrical descriptions of his native Ireland, Trevor creates his own legend in The Story of Lucy Gault.

Have you read the book?

Brooklyn: A Novel

Do you believe that you control your destiny or are controlled by it?   No decisions are made in a vacuum, but how often do you just ride the tide of others’ opinions?

Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn reads like an Irish Our Town with a slow inevitable pace that follows Eilis Lacey, a young Irish immigrant.   Not entirely dissatisfied with her life at home, Eilis gives in to her family’s plans to get her a better future in America.

After a slow and hard crossing to the new world, Eilis survives the inevitable homesickness and alienation,  and with the help of the Irish parish priest and the Irish landlady – both with ties to the homeland – starts a new life.    As expected, with hard work and perseverance, she finds opportunity, work, a man, and her place in the new world – maybe her future.   Sudden tragedy calls her back to Ireland, and Eilis lives in limbo between possibilities – the displaced soul.

Tóibín is an Irishman, so you can expect rich language  and angst – with the themes of obedience and subversion to religion – and only a little sacrilege.    He clearly defines the struggle of the immigrant family and old Irish society.

When the story line seems quietly flowing and a little boring, Tóibín inserts unexpected emotions.   Suddenly, you realize you really did not know the characters at all.   Brooklyn starts out as a quiet easy read, and slowly involves you.  You will not be able to resist wanting to give Eilis a kick and wishing she would at least try to be a little more proactive.