Instructions For a Heat Wave

By Maggie O’Farrell

(Knopf, $25.95, 304)

Who is this author?                            

Part of the fun of writing about books is getting to discover authors I’ve never before read. Not that they aren’t already well-known, just not to me. My summer discovery this year was the award-winning Maggie O’Farrell, who was born in Northern Ireland, grew up in Wales and Scotland and now lives with her family in London. This is her sixth novel, the others being  “After You’d Gone,” “ My Lover’s Lover,” “The Distance Between Us,” “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox”  and  “The Hand That First Held Mine.” Happily, that means I have five more to look forward to.

What is this book about?

It’s the brutally hot summer of 1976 in London, where an Irish family (or most of it) is coping with the stunning heat wave. Gretta, mother of three troubled grown children, wakes to find what seems like a normal day, and despite the punishing heat, bakes some soda bread. And then she realizes that her husband, a quiet retired banker named Robert, has quite unbelievably disappeared, along with some money and his passport. Soon the children — unhappily married history teacher Michael Francis; equally unhappy and very judgmntal middle daughter Monica; and far off in New York, smart but dyslexic youngest daughter Aoife, who has hid her inability to read from family, teachers, employers and even her boyfriend Gabe — are forced to put aside their sometimes petty and more often profound differences and solve the puzzle of where their father has gone. And even more important, what they themselves want from life, and each other.

Why you’ll like it:

O’Farrell is deeply talented at creating believable characters who talk the way real people do, which immediately draws the reader in and does not let them go till the final pages are consumed. Anyone who has had to cope with dysfunctional family dynamics — and that is just about everyone — will be impressed by how skillfully O’Farrell handles them here, from the low-level sniping among the siblings that begins in childhood and grows more serious in adulthood to the constant struggle of a well-meaning mother to control the children she loves but does not understand and their never-ending battle to break free. What takes place over four days is fascinating, but compelling as the plot may be, it’s the power and beauty of O’Farrell’s writing that makes this book so good. Here’s a sample of her prose, as the story begins:

“The heat, the heat. It wakes Gretta just after dawn, propelling her from the bed and down the stairs. It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs. The air in the kitchen is like a solid entity filling the space, pushing Gretta down into the floor, against the side of the table.

“Only she would choose to bake bread in such weather.

“Consider her now, yanking open the oven and grimacing in its scorching blast as she pulls out the bread tin. She is in her nightdress, hair still wound onto curlers. She takes two steps backwards and tips the steaming loaf into the sink, the weight of it reminding her, as it always does, of a baby, a newborn, the packed, damp warmth of it.

“She has made soda bread three times a week for her entire married life. She is not about to let a little thing like a heatwave get in the way of that. …”

What others are saying:

“O’Farrell appears to be fascinated by the idea that the visible connections of kinship or marriage are often not the entire story — and not even the actual story — of what holds us close to one another. Secrets and lies pervade her fictional worlds, and they always tumble out to satisfying effect. She has made her mark by combining the elements of good old-­fashioned drama — love affairs in the shadows, the reappearance of long-lost relatives, hidden wives — with a modern lightness of touch in language and a deft freedom in moving her narratives forward through juxtaposition rather than linear plotting. For the reader, this can feel like having one’s cake and eating it too. O’Farrell’s novels appeal to a broad audience, but they’re also smart and provocative. Over and over, they try to work out who people really are, how ordinary lives can conceal extraordinary stories,” says The New York Times Book Review.

The Observer says:  “All the hallmarks of an O’Farrell novel are here: a family with secrets in its past and words left unsaid years ago, relatives long since forgotten, a claustrophobic atmosphere of uncomfortable emotional closeness. This is an accomplished and addictive story told with real humanity, warmth and infectious love for the characters. Highly recommended.”

Says Booklist: “It is July 1976, and London is in the grip of an intense heatwave. All over the city, people are coming unhinged, and the Riordans are no exception. Retired banker Robert has left to buy a newspaper and never returns. His wife, Gretta, calls their three children, who converge on the family homestead for the first time in years. marriage is over; uptight Monica, trapped in a second marriage with two stepchildren who hate her, is not speaking to the younger sister she practically raised; and Aoife, who has taken herself off to Manhattan but cannot outrun the dyslexia that has made her working life a virtual hell. As the siblings seek out clues to the whereabouts of their father, O’Farrell, in her sixth novel, draws a beautiful portrait of family life. The story really blossoms in the second half, when the Riordans end their search in Ireland, where the family’s secrets and private feuds come raging forth so that the true healing can begin.”

Publishers Weekly says: When Gretta Riordan’s husband, Robert, disappears during the 1976 London heat wave, her three grown children return home for the first time in years. All are dealing with personal crises that inform their relationships with each other and are tied back to their family history. The oldest, Michael Francis, is trying to keep his marriage together as his wife yearns for independence, and his two sisters, Monica and Aoife, have been estranged for years over a bitter secret that led Aoife across the ocean to New York, where she has made a life for herself while hiding her illiteracy. Under the stress of searching for their father and enduring the unbearable heat—which causes people to “act not so much out of character but deep within it”—the siblings and their mother are forced to confront old resentments which bubble to the surface. O’Farrell skillfully navigates between past and present, as family secrets are revealed and old grudges are hashed out, without ever losing the narrative’s pace. An absorbing read from start to finish, through O’Farrell’s vibrant prose, each character comes alive as more is revealed and the novel unfolds.

Kirkus Reviews says: “A sometimes-brooding but always sympathetic novel, by prize-winning British writer O’Farrell, of a family’s struggles to overlook the many reasons why they should avoid each other’s glances and phone calls. Hot town, summer in the city. . . . This does not keep Gretta Riordan, dutiful and uncomplaining, from rising early to bake soda bread. Desiccated Irish transplant Robert Riordan, though, takes a look at his suburban life, wife and family and makes his way to cooler and greener pastures without them. Has the heat addled his brain? Is he doing the only sensible thing possible? When his children converge to suss out what Da has done, they have no answers. Meanwhile, all of them are on the run from themselves: Michael, a schoolteacher, has a wife who’s taken to sheltering herself in the attic, away from her own children. Monica, the favorite (“Not even her subsequent divorce–which caused seismic shockwaves for her parents–was enough to topple her from prime position.”), is on the edge of a scream at any given minute. The baby, Aoife (pronounced “precisely between both ‘Ava’ and ‘Eva’ and ‘Eve,’ passing all three but never colliding with them”) has been off in New York, nursing a very strange secret. In other words, no one’s quite normal, which is exactly as it is with every family on Earth–only, in the case of the Riordans, a little more so. O’Farrell paints a knowing, affectionate, sometimes exasperated portrait of these beleaguered people, who are bound by love, if a sometimes-wary love, but torn apart by misunderstanding, just like all the rest of us. A skillfully written novel of manners, with quiet domestic drama spiced with fine comic moments. The payoff is priceless, too.”

When is it available?        

Whether it is hot or cold, this book can be found at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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