This novel is set during the heatwave of 1976, which I remember very well. Oddly enough, I read the book during recent hot weather, and it made the heat feel even more tangible. The novel centres around the Riordan family. Gretta is the matriarch and, whatever the weather, she bakes soda bread three times a week. Her day starts as normal - she bakes and husband Robert leaves at his usual time to buy a newspapr. He doesn't return...
Robert's disappearance leads to Gretta's grown children rallying round to help. There are Michael and Monica, who are both experiencing marital problems, and youngest daughter Aiofe who lives in New York. This is a novel about family and the secrets, allegiances and relationships which are shared between the different members. Maggie O'Farrell presents a realistic portrayal of a large, Irish Catholic family and a wonderfully evocative portrayal of that never ending summer. I have never read anything by O'Farrell before, but I am sure I will devour her backlist, after this stunning book. As well as being an enjoyable personal read, it would have much to offer reading groups, with lots to discuss, and I enjoyed it immensely.
on 17 October 2013
As a rule, Maggie O'Farrell equals quality in my lexicon: I have devoured all of her novels and waited eagerly for the next. Very few contemporary authors have her command of language, in my opinion - she writes lucidly, often poetically, weaving stories of depth and subtlety with unforgettable characters. But, when I finished reading 'Instructions for a Heatwave', I was left scratching my head and asking 'what was that all about?' I've pondered on it for a couple of days now and am none the wiser.
The references to the 1976 heatwave were in no way integral to the development of the story; in fact, as many other reviewers have said, one could assume the events were unfolding in present day - in the unusually warm summer we've just had - rather than the extreme conditions of 1976. I remember that summer well. So the title was a nonsense.
The plot was thin and loosely held together by characters who were, for the most part, unsympathetic and unlikeable. Of course, it's not necessary to people a story with likeable characters but they certainly have to be believable and none of these were. I found I wasn't terribly interested to discover why most of them weren't speaking to each other at different times - none of the dynamics were explored in depth or with any conviction. In the end, I just hoped they wouldn't find Robert, the father who upped and left with no explanation, for his sake, poor beggar. Very little in the way of satisfactory explication so far as the main thrust of the plot is concerned - the husband/father who walks out without a word to anyone. Odd.
And then, when the novels finishes, an explanation from the author herself about why she wrote the novel. "I didn't intend to write this book. It happened by accident." You don't say. Followed by some black and white photos of Omey Island. Why? Surely the story should be able to stand on its own legs, without props of this kind, from a writer of O'Farrell's calibre? This only confirms to me that she was uneasy about this latest novel - that it required some qualification.
Having said all of that, I must concede that the writing itself had all the O'Farrell hallmarks, her wonderful acuity for evoking language imbued with images and shadows. This earns three stars from me but, sadly, wasn't enough to lift the story out of the doldrums.
on 16 July 2014
Wow, what a load of rubbish. It just rolled on and on without any story to grab hold of and descriptions that seemed to be just space fillers.
The story was bare and had as much meat as a skeleton. How this wrangled through the production process is seriously beyond me. Complete waste of money.
I was sure I would love "Instructions for a Heatwave". A dysfunctional (and Irish!) family - what more could I ask for? O'Farrell's latest offering has several slowly exploding domestic dramas: the disappeared father, the unhappy marriage, the divorced sister, the dyslexic, the dead cat. And wait till you uncover the big family secret. Sounds good on paper? But I found the book was dragging on, the characters not likable (I did not really care for any of them), the secret (oh wait, there are a few) - overrated (and not at all breathtaking!), and the conclusion - unsatisfying.
The whole reference to the 1976 heatwave was completely unnecessary, the "background" played minimal role and did not add to the story at all.
Would not recommend.
on 21 February 2016
I really love the way that Maggie O'Farrell writes - I've read all of her novels - not in a 'follower' type way but more of a coincidence that I picked up each book of hers over the years and thought I liked the sound of it - and having read the list of her books realised that I have indeed read them all - so you could say I am an unwitting follower!
I noticed from a few of the reviews that some readers were frustrated with the lack of story or plot...it is almost this that I love about it. It is about the people, the family and the nuances in the familial relationships and for me it highlights so much that is unspoken, misunderstood, assumed or taboo within a family - especially from this era. There is a strong sense of what is the right or wrong way to behave within this family which doesn't allow for each individual to be truly authentic and honest when it comes to their relationships with each other - mother/daughter, siblings, father/child, husband/wife etc...It is the disappearance of Robert that breaks this cycle and allows them to start to reveal their real selves to each other. I loved it from beginning to end - so cleverly constructed and delivered. Left me mourning the end of a great read...
As for the title - I liked the idea that the story just happens to fall in a time zone that many readers will be able to remember to give it some sentimental/nostalgic value and for those that don't recall 1976 the heat still creates a rise in tension - they can't escape the heat or each other.
on 12 February 2016
Review originally published here: [...]
Set in the blistering heatwave of 1976, Maggie O’Farrell’s sixth novel focuses on the reverberations within a family when its patriarch vanishes. Robert Riordan gets up one morning, follows his usual morning routine, goes out to get the paper – and then is gone. The novel is demarcated with various warnings from the newly-formed Ministry of Drought, giving the reader a sense of how ordinary rules have been suspended, that sometimes people do go mad in the heat. A teenager with a bright future ceases exam revision and instead whiles away her days doing laps of the lake in Hyde Park in a pedalo, the local newsagent starts carrying on with one of the Brownie Leaders and the respectable Mr Riordan disappears, taking his money and passport. Gretta, his wife, calls her children for help. Daughter Monica has ‘a lot on’ dealing with her stepdaughters’ cat. Eldest child Michael Francis has his own problems – he thinks he might be about to get divorced. And then there is the black sheep Aoife, the afterthought child who has taken off to New York and whose current circumstances are unclear.
Like Anne Enright’s The Gathering, this is the story of a family uniting in a crisis – a group of people who don’t like each other very much are forced to work together for a common goal: where on earth has Dad gone? As with so much of O’Farrell’s fiction, secrets lurk beneath the surface and unspoken tensions seethe. Gretta, family matriarch, is an object of puzzlement and anxiety for her children – dependent on pills, too loud, constantly talking and never on point, she is to be protected, sighed over, dismissed – and yet there is the increasing possibility that she knows more than she lets on.
As in After You’d Gone and The Distance Between Us, there are themes of siblinghood and family ties – how far can one ever truly separate from those one grows up with? Is there really any hurt strong enough to knock these ties asunder? Aoife and Monica may not have been on speaking terms for years but Aoife remains aghast at the idea of betraying her sister and the pain of Monica’s disavowal of their shared upbringing mark one of the most painful passages of the novel. Aoife looks at her sister in agony, reflecting on how Monica had cleaned her scabby knees, walking down the street holding her hand, taught her how to put on make-up and yet now stares through her, as if it had never happened. Each of the Riordan children are harbouring their own secret shames, they all have something to hide.
The Riordans are a family out of place – Irish Catholic immigrants living in London. As the daughter of a Northern Irish woman, I felt as though this was a family whose grammar I understood, I recognised the confusion of the second-generation immigrants on English soil. When Michael meets his in-laws for the first time, he has to pause to deconstruct the meaning of the sentence, “If I could possibly trouble you, would you mind passing me the salt?” I know I am not Irish, neither are Robert and Gretta’s children, but in culture, linguistics and dialect, I will never be quite English either. A cursory glance at Maggie O’Farrell’s personal bio reveals her to be in the same demographic.
Many of the characters were tricky to warm to – Michael Francis ‘knocked up a Prod’ while studying for his PhD and mourns the loss of the life he might otherwise have had. Monica grieves for her failed first marriage, even whilst apparently ensconced in rural tranquility in the midst of her second. Claire, Michael Francis’ wife, appears cold and uncaring – although one increasingly sees where she is coming from. Gretta is loud and large and looming – O’Farrell conjures her up vividly as the overpowering matriarch and with the author’s trademark ear for dialogue, I found myself cringing along with her children at her repetitive speeches and martyr-attitude. Still, O’Farrell’s skill is the fact that over time, we come to see beyond the all too apparent flaws and into the person instead.
My personal favourite character was Aoife, the family scapegrace. Born late, wailing and crying, Aoife was a difficult child deemed unteachable by the nuns but O’Farrell reveals her as an undiagnosed dyslexic, struggling as a functional illiterate and desperate to hide her condition from her employer, her boyfriend and indeed anyone she comes into contact with. Despite her rough edges, Aoife is the novel’s compassionate heart, dispensing wisdom to her brother, forgiveness for her sister and understanding for her mother. I wished that the novel had been able to give her greater resolution. Indeed, the story seemed to draw to a close all too soon, with more than one loose end left hanging. Many will see this as allowing the reader to fill in the blanks, but personally I would have liked a little bit more before the curtain fell.
This is a lovely novel – I loved the way that the heat lurked in the background like a silent character, arriving in the opening paragraph ‘like a guest who has outstayed his welcome’ and never leaving. Farrell has established herself as a reliable story-teller but what makes her truly remarkable is her dreamy imagery and apparently effortless prose. I can always picture her characters, they are always convincing and linger in my imagination long after I have closed the book. In Instructions For A Heatwave, we sense inhibitions being dropped in the heat, secrets slipping out and how the heat, oh the heat, can bring stories long left unspoken to the surface. A wonderful book for O’Farrell fans both old and new.
on 2 February 2016
There are books you read slowly because you don’t want them to end, books you read quickly because you need to know what happens next, and books you read quickly because you want to finish them and move on to the next one.
I’m afraid for me this novel was one of the last option.
That’s not to say it’s a bad book – it just wasn’t to my taste.
One day in 1976 Robert Riordan walks out of his house in London – and never comes back.
That action is the plot device that brings together his wife and three adult children: Michael Francis who had to give up his dream of an American University after his girlfriend became pregnant and is now a harassed father of two struggling to maintain a marriage that he feels is falling apart. Monica who has one failed marriage behind her and is now living with a man whose two resentful children secretly terrify her. And the baby, Aoife, who is holding down a dream job in New York whilst hiding a secret from her employer and boyfriend.
The story is set during the scorching summer of 1976, although apart from the obvious references to how hot it is, I couldn’t really see that that brought much to the story. Over four days the siblings bicker and air old grievances in a way that anyone who has grown up in a family will instantly recognise. The story flips very quickly between the present and memories of the past, moving easily from one era to the other in the space of a paragraph – but it’s not distracting. And throughout modern and past family life, is interwoven their mother, the infuriating Gretta. A staunch catholic, Gretta seems incapable of silence. Her world is filled with words. And beyond that her headaches, her endless supply of tablets, and her ability to turn even the most mundane incident into a drama.
To be honest Gretta was one of the reasons I didn’t really take to this book; I just couldn’t warm to her and her total inability to see how her actions had shaped her children’s view of the world – or take any responsibility for it if she did. Likewise Aoife was a character that, even once I knew her ‘secret’ I found it quite hard to like.
This is an excellent study in family dynamics and you understand that, for all their quarrelling and fallings out, the Riordans will eventually always be there for each other because they are a family.
The descriptive passages are excellent – the ferry journey to Ireland came over particularly well.
Unsurprisingly we eventually find out what happened to Robert and in doing so uncover the biggest family secret of all.
As I said at the beginning this is not really for me; it’s largely character driven and I prefer my novels to be plot driven. Since I probably wouldn’t buy another book by this author, it seemed fair to give it three stars.
on 12 August 2015
When Instructions For A Heatwave was released in 2013 I’d heard lots of great things about it through the Twitter reading community but I hadn’t got around to reading it. As I was preparing for my holiday I considered what reading material I’d need – as you have to! And because I obviously don’t have enough on my kindle alone… – this book immediately came to mind due to the title. I went into the bookstore, read the blurb, thought it was my cup of tea for my non-crime reading days and quickly purchased it.
I won’t even say whether I was around for the heatwave or if I remember it or not!
Heatwave (yes, I’m now shortening the title. I’m very sorry Maggie O’Farrell!) is a wonderful book. I found the first few pages a bit slow, as I’m used to someone being murdered pretty quickly, but once I continued reading I soon found myself engrossed in the worlds of these people. Of this family. They became real to me. I was invested and attached. I was rooting for them and sad for them. Cheering for them and holding my breath for them.
Yes, someone goes missing and it could be classed as a mystery if you wanted to stretch it, but it’s a family story, a story about wife Gretta and her children; Michael Francis, Monica and Aiofe. How their lives are now and how – as they look through the house that used to be their home for clues about their father – their lives were back then, and we find out that families are complicated. Each person individual. But ultimately they’re all there together for the same reason.
I did want the book to continue after it had actually ended as I didn’t feel I had all the answers I wanted, but O’Farrell is masterful with her keyboard and I would definitely read more by her. A great poolside read!
The heatwave is that of Britain in 1976 and the events of Maggie O’Farrell’s sixth novel take place between 15th and 18th July during that sweltering summer. The weather, lots of sweat and melting tar, provides a backdrop the events that are initiated by Robert Riordan, recently retired from a bank, leaving home in London to buy a newspaper and disappearing. This sets the scene for the author to present a wonderfully squabbling family, Gretta, Robert’s wife, their daughters Maureen and Aoife, and son Michael Francis.
The children respond to their mother’s worries: Aoife returning from New York where she works as an assistant to a famous photographer, Maureen escaping from Gloucestershire where she has to face the attrition of two stepdaughters and an older, boring husband who feels guilty for leaving their mother, and history teacher Michael Francis, who still lives nearby, feels undervalued at work and at home, and cannot come to terms with his wife’s determination to study for an Open University degree and meet new friends. Because she got pregnant the plans for their life together were sidetracked and her renewed enthusiasms shows up his lack of ambition.
O’Farrell masterfully reconstructs the period and presents a family who soon remember all the resentments and frustrations of their earlier life together. Whilst all the family are strongly drawn, it is Gretta who dominates – the only one still attending church, refusing to admit her past errors and still determined that her adult children should fit into the lifestyles that she expects. Robert, Gretta and Aoife all have big secrets, the latter actually has two [one of which is cleverly presented by O’Farrell]. The author moves back and forth in time to show the origins of the family’s current animosities and jealousies, as well as presenting truly authentic portraits of adults who still behave like children and seethe with the remembrance of past injustices.
The author’s ear for dialogue between generations and between bickering and openly hostile siblings is very keen. The complexity of the interlocking storylines is hidden by some remarkable writing that expertly balance humour and dark intensity of feeling. The reader’s concern with Robert’s fate is wonderfully controlled and varied by the author; at first it is the main story, then it gives way to individual family dramas before returning in the last part of the book when possible explanations for Robert’s disappearance are suggested. This knowledge leads them to drive to Connemara [‘Aiofe….is inking a diagram into her head of their positions in the car, with unbroken lines for those who are communicating and dotted lines for those who aren’t. Those in the second category: her and Monica, Monica and Gretta, Michael Francis and his wife, Hughie and Vita [their children], after a brief spat over a packet of Refreshers’]. Throughout the book dotted lines abound.
In the course of the book O’Farrell paints an unforgettable story of Irish immigrants in England in the 1950s and the animosity and prejudice that they faced. It also offers portraits of women struggling to develop to their real potential half a century ago. She manages to present Robert, who we only see as a person in the opening pages, as a complex figure who has used his weekly routine and shocking experiences in WWII as barriers to meaningful interaction, just as his wife uses domestic chores and changing the subject of a conversation. Gretta’s shock when this no longer works in the face of questioning by her adult daughters is comic but also grounded in human psychology.
This book is every bit as good as Anne Enright’s ‘The Gathering’ that also describes characters of similar backgrounds. In the course of the novel I learned how to pronounce ‘Aoife’ correctly. The book includes photographs taken by the author whilst researching the latter part of the story in Connemara. Strongly recommended.
Maggie O'Farrell is an excellent writer, and her latest novel is another hit. Set in the long, oppressively hot summer of 1976, the atmosphere of cloying heat was almost another character in the book.
It was against this backdrop that elderly, forgetful Robert goes out to get his morning newspaper, as usual, but fails to return. His wife, Gretta, is devastated, she has no idea where he has gone, and calls her three children around her for support.
This impromptu family reunion has stresses and hidden secrets of its own and forms the backbone of the book.
Gretta's eldest son, known by both his names, as Michael Francis, teaches history, although he had higher aspirations as a student. His wife Claire has decided it is time she went back to university and has started studying history through the Open University. Monica is in her second marriage, with Peter, whose wife and children live close by, making her life uncomfortable. Aoife has to travel over to Ireland from The United States, her first trip back for several years. She leaves behind a fairly new relationship, one that she has great hopes for. Her childhood was riddled with problems caused by severe reading disabilities and she hides her inability to read behind an excellent memory. She works in a bar by night and as a photographer's assistant by day.
I listened to this from Audible, expertly narrated by Dearbhla Molloy, whose Irish accent definitely added to my enjoyment. The complex characters and gradual unravelling of the tale kept me hooked as I carried my Kindle around the house. I remember that long hot summer, though as a child, it didn't seem quite so oppressive; it formed the perfect setting for Robert's mysterious disappearance and the family interactions that resulted.