Title: Instructions for a Heatwave
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
No. of Pages: 304
Genre: Literary Fiction
Origins: Knopf Doubleday
Bottom Line: Poignant reminder of how much things have changed and how some things will never change
“It’s the summer of 1976 and London is in the grip of a record-breaking heat wave when Gretta Riordan discovers that her newly retired husband, Robert, has cleaned out his bank account and vanished. Now, Gretta’s three children converge in their mother’s home for the first time in years: Michael Francis, a history teacher whose marriage is failing; Monica, with two stepdaughters who despise her and an ugly secret that has driven a wedge between herself and the little sister she once adored; and Aoife, the youngest of the Riordans, now living in Manhattan, a smart, immensely resourceful young woman who has arranged her entire life to conceal her illiteracy.As the siblings tease out clues about their father’s whereabouts, they navigate rocky pasts and long-held secrets, until at last their search brings them to their ancestral village in Ireland, where the truth of their parents’ lives–and their own–is suddenly revealed.”
Thoughts: There is something about a heat wave that compels people to act differently. It is as if the energy expended while trying to keep cool breaks down barriers that people build to hide secrets or to ignore the truth. The Riordan family experiences this phenomenon firsthand when their father disappears one morning without a trace. Brought back together for the first time in years, each is forced to reevaluate his or her life as the truth behind each makes itself as clear. Maggie O’Farrell’s latest, Instructions for a Heatwave, explores family dynamics, the ties that bind, and the ties that disconnect us from each other.
Each of the Riordan children has their issues. Michael hates his job. Monica is living in a house she does not like and must deal with stepchildren who refuse to give her a chance. However, it is Aoife who tugs on a reader’s heart strings. There is no doubt as to her intelligence. That such a talented girl remains illiterate seems unfathomable and tragic, especially to modern readers for whom help with dyslexia is the norm. Compared to her struggles, Michael’s and Monica’s issues seem mundane and due more to a lack of communication rather than anything profound.
Gretta provides some much-needed comic relief but like all clowns, there is something inherently sad about it. The differences between her perspective of herself and her children’s perspective of her is startling, amusing, and somewhat depressing. The fact that her children fail to see her as a normal adult like them should not surprise any parent, but it does not take the sting out of the fact that they all consider her fairly ridiculous and embarrassing with her exuberant and outgoing personality.
Instructions for a Heatwave works well specifically because of the time period in which the story is set. Irish Catholics in 1976 were still abundant and profoundly religious. There was a stigma to children out of wedlock that does not exist today, nor were there the social services to help someone struggling in school. These each play key roles in the unfolding of the story, as they drive each character’s actions and set up later conflict. Understanding these historical viewpoints is essential to being able to understand and accept certain reactions to events in the story.
Fans of Ms. O’Farrell will find her latest novel to be as equally strong in character, content, and exploration of the meaning of family as in her earlier works. Instructions for a Heatwave is a fascinating study of family as well as the secrets we keep from our loved ones. Each member of the Riordan family has perfectly legitimate reasons for keeping such secrets, but it isn’t until confronted with the blistering heat and their missing father where they finally scrutinize those reasons and decide to stop hiding behind them. This character-heavy novel will equally amuse and sadden readers with its spot-on depiction of sibling jealousy and unnecessary lack of communication.