Edinburgh Books and Writers

Off the tourist driven Royal Mile, down a secluded alley – called a Close – the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh welcomes readers with quiet homage to a few of Scotland’s greatest writers – Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Sir Walter Scott. Steep winding staircases lead to rooms in a restored 17th century house, displaying first editions, writing instruments, even desks used by the authors. Of course, their portraits are everywhere.

A poster in the gift shop advertised the Edinburgh International Book Festival nearby, with some of my favorite authors speaking – Maggie O’Farrell, Sophie Hannah, Haruki Murakami, Martin Amis. Too late to get a ticket to hear even one, but I wandered the grounds, browsed through the books in tents, and, of course, bought some books.

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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 Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell

How far back can you remember? Most memories of being very young depend on stories told by parents – sometimes embellished, but usually dependable sources of personal history.

Maggie O’Farrell newest novel, The Hand That First Held Mine, offers a bumpy ride through the memory of generations. As you flip back and forth between the lives of new parents, Elina and Ted, to the saga of Lexie and Innes and later Felix, you may guess the connection before Part Two, yet you will be unsure enough to wonder and keep going.

Lexie’s life is the heart of the novel – where it begins and ends. She escapes the English countryside as a young girl to an unconventional life in London, moves in with a married man, starts a career as a writer, and later has a child.

In what seems a parallel universe, but many years later, Elina, an unmarried talented artist, struggles through the physical and mental pains of raising her own son, with Ted – who seems to be experiencing his own brand of postpartum depression. O’Farrell’s vivid description of the insecurity and mundane that parents experience with a new baby will have you feeling as tired and mad as the characters.

O’Farrell’s writing is like a screenplay script with the director’s notes to the actors built-in. She gives every detail of the scene and includes the character’s thought and thought-process at the same time. At times, you will feel you are there in the room with Elina or Lexie; other times, you will want to just skip over the tedium and get to the plot.

If you miss Innes’s blue felt suit or Lexie’s wrists, O’Farrell will bring them back to you again – the costumes and scenery add authenticity but are not relevant. It is the character’s inner thoughts that carry the clues to the storyline.

The mystery unravels too slowly, at times, and the back and forth constraints can be irritating and confusing. Yet, O’Farrell teases with hints that there is more – Ted’s flashbacks, the foreshadowing of Lexie’s life ending, provocative lines – “…the truth is often overrated.” Even if you don’t attend to the clues, you will still see how it all fits in the end.

The plot takes the characters through unexpected turns of betrayal, ambition, and perseverance, that slowly gets to a satisfying ending.

I found O’Farrell with The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. In that much tighter and shorter story, O’Farrell also made a statement about betrayal. A woman is hidden away supposedly for her own good – more likely for the convenience of family. The story reminded me of Emily Mann’s play, Mrs. Packard, based on a real story of a 19th century woman who is sent to an asylum for disagreeing with her husband. Esme Lennox is fictional and not as politically charged , but her resurrection is as jarring as that of Mrs. Packard. If you have not read it yet, do.

Add Maggie O’Farrell to your list of authors who can tell a good story.