That’s what she read: Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

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C. Jayne Trent

Photo courtesy of book_oxfam.org

book_oxfam.org

If you read one novel this year, it should be Instructions for a Heatwave. It is that good.

Robert Riordan vanishes in the middle of a stultifying London heatwave, leaving wife Gretta and grown children Michael Francis, Monica, and Aoife mystified, bereft, and angry. This family crisis of losing their father reunites the siblings – but old fault lines soon emerge.

The book focuses on the complex drama of each character’s life. Michael Francis feels that his life is a failure and fears for his unraveling marriage. Monica’s two stepchildren dislike and avoid her. She wonders if marrying their father was a mistake. Aoife has her own issues too– after fleeing London for New York, she returns to a sister who won’t acknowledge her for reasons unknown. She struggles with keeping a family that is kept in the dark about the distressing secret she keeps.

Gretta has similar issues. She cannot understand why her husband of forty years has left her, nor can she figure out why her children have such troubling and tangled relationships.

O’Farrell’s writing is spare, elegant and evocative. She describes her characters quickly and memorably, without wordy and wasteful explanations. An excerpt from the book reveals her talent, summing up Gretta’s despair in a few striking lines:

“Her mind, these past days, has been filling up with things like, I saw the oddest looking baby in the butcher’s today, did you see there’s a new ticket man at the tube station, do you remember that hairdresser’s Bridie went to. Her temples ache with all that is unspoken, unlistened to.”

As the unbearably hot summer swelters on, the Riordan family secrets become exposed. Throughout the book, Gretta and her children face some hard truths about themselves and each other. Instructions for a Heatwave walks through the process of the characters’ redefining their roles, leading to a satisfying conclusion. Each family member learns who they are and what they truly want from life and from each other.

I loved this book and hated to finish it. I plan to console myself by reading all of O’Farrell’s previous novels.

 

CJ Trent is the secretary for the Math department and would always rather be reading.