British writer Maggie O’Farrell, born in Northern Ireland, is less well-known in the U.S. than she should be. Her mesmerizing, tautly plotted novels often revolve around long-standing, ugly family secrets and feature nonconformist women who rebel against their strict Irish Catholic upbringing. Her most recent books, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006) and The Hand That First Held Mine (2010), offer the sort of spellbinding reads that can make you miss your flight announcement.
I nearly missed my subway stop while immersed in Instructions for a Heatwave. Although it doesn’t pack the surprise punches of her Costa award-winning The Hand That First Held Mine, O’Farrell’s sixth novel still has plenty to recommend it — including an utterly convincing portrait of a voluble, long-suffering, devout Catholic who’s “always done her best to keep Ireland alive in her London-born children” but is dismayed that not one of them is a churchgoer.
The novel takes place in London and Ireland over four scorching July days in 1976. When devoted but taciturn Robert Riordan, a retired bank manager, doesn’t return after ducking out for the paper, as he has every morning for more than 30 years, his three grown children are drawn back home to rally around their bewildered mother. They come to realize that Gretta Riordan is more complex than any of them had imagined.
“The heat, the heat,” O’Farrell’s novel opens, but the drought and soaring temperatures are more metaphoric — and significantly less oppressive — than family dynamics. The narrative shifts expertly between Gretta and her son and two daughters, each of whom bears secrets and a backstory that rekindle old grievances with suffocating intensity.
Gretta, it seems, is the only one who’s happily hitched — or so she assumed right up to the morning when her beloved Robert took off with his passport and extra cash. As usual, he had set the table with everything she needed for her breakfast: “… a plate, a knife, a bowl with a spoon, a pat of butter, a jar of marmalade. It is in such small acts of kindness that people know they are loved,” she reflects just before he vanishes.
No such thoughtfulness greets Gretta’s sensitive, guilt-prone first-born, Michael Francis, when he trudges home from his dreary job teaching history. After a shotgun wedding, he had to abandon his Ph.D. studies and dash his dreams of a professorship at an American university. Now that their second child is ready to start school, his wife, Claire, who’s barely talking to him, is paving the way to her liberation by studying to complete her long-abandoned degree. Michael Francis is distraught at the thought of losing her.
O’Farrell piles on the misery in this section of the novel, though Monica, 10 months younger than her brother, is too peevish and self-righteous to arouse much compassion. Her first husband left her after a rude discovery of just how determined she was not to have children. Now she’s terribly unhappy in her new country life, married to an older antiques dealer whose two small daughters treat her with disdain.
O’Farrell’s sympathies generally lie most solidly with black sheep — or rather, black ewes. As such, Aoife (pronounced like Eva with an F sound, we’re told) is the bleating heart of the novel. Ten years Monica’s junior, she had, in her mother’s words, “gone off the rails” and “flounced” to New York City three years earlier after a major falling-out with her sister. This defection capped a miserable childhood blighted by undiagnosed dyslexia. Enthralled with her freedom from family censure, Aoife has managed to support herself by working multiple jobs, including the first she’s ever loved, as a photographer’s assistant. But her carefully hidden illiteracy threatens her job and a serious budding romance.
With its tight time frame and carefully choreographed dramatic revelations, Instructions for a Heatwave unfolds with the efficiency of a well-constructed three-act drama. O’Farrell’s dialogue is dead on, but she’s equally skilled at letting small gestures, such as an arm draped around another’s shoulder, tell us all we need to know.
The absent father is somewhat beside the point and fizzles as a galvanizing narrative force when O’Farrell discloses the mystery behind his disappearance — without much fanfare, and well before we expect it. Her real concern, it turns out, is not the Riordans’ secret history but the familial ties that both bind and bruise — and the importance of forgiving those you love, whatever their trespasses.
How to weather crises and soaring temperatures? Get on with “the small acts of life.” And when things really heat up, clear the air. Instructions for a Heatwaveis a beautiful book about forgiveness.