Thursday, September 12, 2013

Review: Instructions for a Heatwave

Summary: Sophisticated, intelligent, impossible to put down, Maggie O’Farrell’s beguiling novels—After You’d Gone, winner of a Betty Trask Award; The Distance Between Us, winner of a Somerset Maugham Award; The Hand That First Held Mine, winner of the Costa Novel Award; and her unforgettable bestseller The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox—blend richly textured psychological drama with page-turning suspense. Instructions for a Heatwave finds her at the top of her game, with a novel about a family crisis set during the legendary British heatwave of 1976. 

Gretta Riordan wakes on a stultifying July morning to find that her husband of forty years has gone to get the paper and vanished, cleaning out his bank account along the way. Gretta’s three grown children converge on their parents’ home for the first time in years: Michael Francis, a history teacher whose marriage is failing; Monica, with two stepdaughters who despise her and a blighted past that has driven away the younger sister she once adored; and Aoife, the youngest, now living in Manhattan, a smart, immensely resourceful young woman who has arranged her entire life to conceal a devastating secret. 

 Maggie O’Farrell writes with exceptional grace and sensitivity about marriage, about the mysteries that inhere within families, and the fault lines over which we build our lives—the secrets we hide from the people who know and love us best. In a novel that stretches from the heart of London to New York City’s Upper West Side to a remote village on the coast of Ireland, O’Farrell paints a bracing portrait of a family falling apart and coming together with hard-won, life-changing truths about who they really are. -- Knopf

I had a very productive vacation when it came to reading. Tanning, not so much, but finishing books was another story. I read quite a few good ones, but I think my favorite just might have been INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE by Maggie O'Farrell. I had seen some positive reviews for this novel as well as Ms. O'Farrell's writing, and I have to say that I totally agree!

In short, INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE is just a well written and very smart novel. It takes place during the British heatwave of 1976 and tells the story of the Riordan family. One morning, Gretta discovers that her husband of forty years is missing -- he went to get the morning paper and never came back! She notifies her three grown (and very different) children that their father has mysteriously disappeared, and as a result, they all come home for the first time in many years.

Michael is the only boy -- a teacher whose marriage is on the brink; Monica is married with two stepdaughters (who just happen to hate her); and Aoife is the youngest child who lives in New York and hides a pretty amazing secret. Monica and Aoife are estranged over something that happened years ago and have never made up. While all three children have major issues in their lives, they come together for the sake of their mother and eventually discover the importance of family.

I was extremely impressed with INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE! In fact, I think it might have been one of my favorite summer reads. I absolutely loved Ms. O'Farrell's storytelling abilities and her character development and prose were outstanding. And I loved how she tied the the oppressive heat of the summer with the building tensions in the Riordan family. However, what made this novel so special to me was the way that the author captured the essence of families and their secrets.

I guess you could say that there was an element of mystery to this story, too, since the reader (and the family) isn't quite sure what happened to the father. However, I didn't find this aspect of the story to be all that intriguing. Yes, I was a bit curious about why he left and where he went, but I mostly appreciated this part of the story as a way to bring the characters together and see how they acted in a time of crisis. Furthermore, I loved that it allowed old family secrets to come to the surface.

Another thing I appreciated about INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE was how the author portrayed the Riordan family. I loved the petty squabbling that the siblings did with each other, and the dialogue was often times very smart and witty. However, I also liked how the novel explored larger and much more serious issues. (I"m being vague on purpose because I don't want to spoil anything!) All of the siblings were experiencing their fair share of problems... on their own; and it wasn't until they came together because of their missing father, that they realized the role family members can play in their lives.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE would make an excellent book club selection. There is a
reading guide available with twenty (yes twenty!) discussion questions. Needles to say, there is a great deal to discuss. Some of the topics you might want to delve into include family, trust, marriage, love, parent/child relationships, sibling rivalry, forgiveness, pregnancy and birth, estrangement, and secrets. The list could really go on and on.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE is an excellent book about families and their secrets. Highly recommended.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


Amy said...

I've read two of her previous books and really loved them, so I definitely want to read this one!

Beth F said...

I really liked this one too. I listened to the audiobook, which was well done. I thought the character development and the family dynamics rang true, and I especially liked the younger sister.

bermudaonion said...

I know how much you read this summer so picking this book as your favorite says quite a lot about the book! I've never read O'Farrell's writing but it sure sounds like I need to.

Beth Hoffman said...

Sorry you didn't get much of a tan, but I'm really glad you enjoyed this book. I've had it on my "to buy" list and need to move it up closer to the top.

Gayle Weiswasser said...

I just got this on audio from the library, so I am looking forward to it. Did you read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox? That was very dark and sad but a good read.

Amy said...

You inspired me: just finished and reviewed this (