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Instructions for a Heatwave (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – May 6, 2014
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“Warmhearted. . . . Work[s] out who people really are, how ordinary lives can conceal extraordinary stories.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Perhaps a perfect book. . . . Proceeding at a stately and crisp speed through a fully rendered world, grappling at all times and in an original way with the fascinating problems of our time, rushing head-long—and yet staggering almost drunkenly when necessary—towards a stirring and wondrous conclusion.” —The Los Angeles Review of Books
“A thoroughly engrossing and suspenseful novel. . . . O’Farrell, in this beautifully written tale, gets the psychological nuances just right.” —Anita Shreve
“A narrative of extraordinary power. . . . Big-hearted, psychologically complex, and utterly gripping from page one.” —Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette
“A beautiful book. . . . Spellbinding.” —NPR
“O’Farrell has done it again. . . . There is a deliciousness to this novel, a warmth and readability that render it unputdownable and will surely make it a hit.” —The Guardian (London)
“A rich, barbed interplay among siblings, who gibe, snap, and snipe as they go through their father’s things, slowly teasing out one another’s long-buried secrets.” —Entertainment Weekly, Grade: A-
“Unputdownable. . . . There’s always something so tender and true in Maggie O’Farrell’s writing; a lovely ability to observe the smallest, most ordinary detail of family life and gild it with grace and significance.” —Marie Claire
“Once again, O’Farrell demonstrates her mastery at depicting strained relationships, skewed family loyalties and the just reachable light at the end of the tunnel.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Superlative. . . . A Mike Leigh-style extravaganza of reckonings and reconciliations.” —Vogue
“Well worth seeking out. . . . It might sound a little grand to wax lyrical about ‘the power of the novel’ and all that, but you know, there is such a thing, and this book taps into it.” —PopMatters
“A beautifully written and perfectly observed story of family, secrets, and forgiveness.” —J. Courtney Sullivan
“Just the kind of family drama I love. . . . Stylish, funny, smart, and skillfully written, and I could not put it down.” —Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins
“An accomplished and addictive story told with real humanity, warmth and infectious love for the characters. Highly recommended.” —The Observer (London)
“O’Farrell is a deliciously insightful writer. . . . The final scenes of the family’s trip to Ireland is as perceptive on the jaggedness of family forced together as Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship.” —The Independent on Sunday
“Exceptionally good.” —The Telegraph (London)
“Thoroughly absorbing and beautifully written.” —Daily Mail
“O’Farrell is hard to beat. Anyone looking for a British equivalent of Anne Tyler need look no further.” —The Scotsman
About the Author
Maggie O’Farrell is the author of After You’d Gone, winner of a Betty Trask Award; My Lover’s Lover; The Distance Between Us, winner of a Somerset Maugham Award; The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox; The Hand That First Held Mine, winner of a Costa Novel Award; and Instructions for a Heatwave, shortlisted for the Costa Award.
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My major criticisms of the story are two. First, the timeline is chopped up (apparently the “in” thing to do in literature today), but the cues to the reader are often faint to non-existent. Second, the ending, while it tied up all loose ends, was rosy to the point of feeling contrived.
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.
Enjoyable. I felt like I wasn't ready to end the book. I wanted to know them more.
I do like stories about dysfunction and there was plenty of that in this novel. I just felt that it could have been accomplished much faster or more efficiently. The number of metaphors was a grating hinderance to the flow. I felt that if the story were to be told instead of written, it might have had a greater impact both literally and emotionally. As it is, I didn't much care about the characters or the unsatisfactory ending.