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4.4 out of 5 stars351
4.4 out of 5 stars
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on 11 June 2007
I have previously read another Maggie O'Farrell, and loved her gentle narrative, so thought "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" would be the perfect holiday read. The book contains a bit of everything, intrigue, love, sadness and even some humour, and tells of the huge betrayal of Esme Lennox by her sister, and the susbsequent consequences. I loved the portrayal of Esme as a quirky, rebellious character fighting against the typical expectations of her family, and enjoyed hearing the story from several different angels, that of Esme herself, her sister, and her newly found relative. The whole tale builds up to a climatic finale, which left a slightly disturbing flavour, but is befitting and not out of line with the rest of the book. Overall, a highly recommended read.
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on 7 February 2007
I have to start this review with a warning: if you pick up this book you won't be able to put it down until you've finished. Nothing else will get done - you won't be able to answer the phone, cook a meal, pick up your emails, anything. You'll just have to sit there, stuck to your chair, and keep on reading.

This is the story of a woman put into an asylum for doing nothing more than trying on some of her mother's clothes and refusing to cut her hair. Not the behaviour of an insane person but the normal things a teenager does. But Esme has been born into a repressive, pre-Second-Worl-War society and so any slight rebellion is seen as a sign of an unsound mind.

It is a brilliant, evocative, moving book. I cried about four times, especially towards the end. It moves back and forth from the 1930s to the present-day Edinburgh. Esme's niece, Iris, is called to the asylum to meet the great-aunt she never knew she had. At first she's reluctant to have anything to do with her but then she gets caught up in the mystery that is Esme Lennox...

I can't find the words to recommend this book enough. BUY IT. IT'S GREAT!
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on 12 May 2013
Not the best of Maggie O'Farrell, but well written and an intersting story line which is based on the practice in the early 1900's of confining to mental institutions anyone who did not confirm to strict societal codes.
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on 6 June 2007
This is the first Maggie O'Farrell book I've read and I loved it. Will definitely be reading more of her in the future.

I loved this book. I whizzed through it in a weekend it was so unputdownable. Although the author's writing style is kept very simple and the story is revealed through minimum facts, there is still something about it that really made me empathise with Esme. I felt genuinely moved by the loss of her life to a mental institution. it was such a heart-wrenching read in that respect. I thought the characterisation of Esme was fabulous - one of the best female characters I've read for a long time. I think Iris and A;ex were slightly weaker characters and I think the author could have done a bit more to develop them.

I agree with what another reader has said on here that the book does leave you wanting more. Although I respect O'Farrell for giving the author the benefit of the doubt to fill in the gaps in the story that she has left, I would also have liked a bit more 'padding out' - especially regarding Esme's incarceration. However, despite this, it was still a wonderful read. I would urge anyone to read it!!
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on 14 July 2013
I found this book compelling reading and couldn't put it down. It swings back and forth from pre world war II to the present day. Covering the story of Esme who was a young person who was put into an asylum simply because she didn't conform to the 'correctness' of the day. Her great niece Iris eventually makes contact with her and gradually discovers what a beautiful person Esme is. It is a wonderful story which made me laugh and cry - what more can you ask for?
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on 9 May 2013
What a book! Very worthwhile read - loved the different styles of narrative - switching from sister to sister, lots of good book club themes to discuss & a definite to recommend to anyone e who will listen!
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on 26 August 2007
A fine, mature, and psychologically perceptive novel which has been elegantly and skilfully crafted.
O' Farrell has woven a compelling plot with a strong sense of time (from the 1930s to the present) and place (India & Edinburgh), each anchored by rich sensory detail.Thorough research and observation clearly underpin this novel but they are neither heavy-handed nor self-conscious. Her characterisation seemed to me to be effective and persuasive.
Esme - the protagonist's previously unknown elderly relative upon whose discovery, after she had been held for sixty years in a lunatic asylum, the plot hangs - illuminates a significant theme of the novel (p 134)when she decides that "[w]e are all ... just vessels through which identities pass: we are lent features, gestures, habits, then we hand them on. Nothing is our own. We begin in the world as anagrams of our antecedents." But, as her life demonstrates dramatically, that is at the beginning and we go on to be shaped by our actions, and the social mores against which they are evaluated.
This is a 'good read' with an ending which, although finally unsurprising, presents itself as a possibility (unwelcome though just)sufficently late in the tale's unfolding to shock. Its impact unsettled me for some time after I had, reluctantly, finished the book.
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on 25 September 2007
Stumbled across a First Ed Hardback in a charity shop and purchased blind because I loved the title! Wanted to respond to previous comments really. This book doesn't suggest that there are mentally well people in long stay mental hospitals nor that family strife causes severe mental health problems. Esme is far from mentally well, I think the point the author is trying to make is that nevertheless she didn't belong in a mental institution! Neither does the author suggest that Esme's mental health is the result of 'family strife'! There are two very clear defining moments, at the risk of spoiling I won't say what they are!, that go someway to explaining why Esme retreats inside herself. Her families failure to support her is of course relevant but more a secondary issue.

Anyway I absolutely loved this book. Didn't instantly notice we'ld switched narrator ( so had to go back and re-read the first time it happened! ) but otherwise totally enthralling and devoured in a day.
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on 3 October 2006
I fell in love with the protagonist in this book. I think it's hard not to. Her character is so engaging that you can't help but feel what she feels. This is one of those books that you can't put down for a second, and when you do the characters linger. You find yourself wondering after them and what became of them. It's a rare book that can have such an effect; the type you search for a rarely find. I challenge anyone not to adore Esme by the end of this book.

I've never previously read any of Maggie O'Farrell, but I think this book will be the start of something beautiful!

Seriously though, if you want something that's immediately arresting, shocking, but also highly amusing, 'The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox' has it all.
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on 6 December 2008
I heard of this book some time ago, when a lot of people were raving about it, but I'd tried Maggie O'Farrell's After You'd Gone and not got on very well with it, so had held off. Anyway, this finally came my way and I started it -- and finished it -- yesterday. Yes, it was unputdownable. The plot revolves around a woman who has been unjustly incarcerated in a mental hospital at a very young age and has remained there for over sixty years. The hospital is now closing down and the inhabitants have to be rehoused. O'Farrell's narrative is wide-ranging and complex, giving us glimpses into the past through various perspectives and also telling the story of the novel's present, in which a young woman, Iris Lockhart, finds herself saddled with a great-aunt, Esme Lennox, who she never knew existed. Although the reader learns early on of Esme's hospitalisation all those years ago, the facts that lie behind it are revealed only gradually. And chilling facts they are. Esme, intelligent, strong-willed, rebellious, and increasingly attractive, has never been understood by her conventional family. Persecuted at school for her strangeness, and damaged by some traumatic events in her childhood, she is disposed of by her parents with what really appears to be relief when a horrific ordeal temporarily unbalances her. When Iris, much to her discomfort, is forced to bring Esme to her flat, she is dreading the experience. But Esme is not the terrifying madwoman that Iris has been dreading. Esme does, however, have secrets of her own, and secrets to discover. As more and more of her past is revealed, and as her older sister's role in the long-ago events becomes clearer, the tension mounts. I was not, however, prepared for the climax and finished the book feeling quite shaken. This is a beautifully written and deeply thought-provoking novel. Iris's own story --complex and troubled in itself -- interweaves with Esme's and the reader begins to see similarities between the two women. But above all this is Esme's story, and it evokes tremendous sympathy for this interesting, unhappy woman. Highly recommended.
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