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.
Maggie O'Farrell's eagerly anticipated latest novel 'Instructions for a Heatwave' is a very readable and entertaining story that pulls the reader in from the very first pages. Set in London, during the heatwave of 1976, we meet Gretta Riordan, a Catholic Irish woman, mother to three grown-up children, and her husband, Robert, a retired bank employee. As yet another hot and listless day begins, Robert goes out for his daily newspaper, just as he does every morning - however, today, he doesn't return home. As the day wears on, Gretta becomes more and more worried and, when it is discovered that Robert has taken money and his passport, she realizes that her husband had no intention of returning home when he left their house that morning.
Gretta now has to tell her three children that Robert has disappeared; firstly there is her eldest child, Michael Francis, a teacher, married to Claire and whose marriage is in difficulty; then there is Monica, the middle child, whose first marriage broke up after a tragic event and is now married to antiques dealer, Peter, and living in the countryside; however, Monica is not entirely happy - she not only misses London, but Peter's two daughters bitterly resent her and make her life very difficult. And finally there is Gretta and Robert's younger daughter, Aoife, their 'problem' child, whose difficult and challenging behaviour has caused problems for the rest of the family, especially since she has "gone off the rails". (When, in fact, most of Aoife's problems are due to her painful battle with undiagnosed dyslexia). After a terrible misunderstanding with Monica, the cause of which is gradually revealed to the reader, Aoife has left London and has been working in New York, desperately trying to conceal from her lover and her employer, the fact that she cannot read. As all three of Gretta's children congregate to try to establish why their father has disappeared, the heat rises in more ways than one, and when family skeletons begin to emerge from the closet, things begin to get rather messy and claustrophobic in the Riorden family. But what has really happened to Robert? And does Gretta know more about Robert's problems than she is prepared to reveal to others? (No spoilers).
Moving from London, to New York and to Ireland, this is a beautifully written story and a very perceptive observation of the internal dynamics of family relationships; of how we try to conceal things and about the lies we tell to ourselves and others. Throughout her story Maggie O'Farrell cleverly reveals layer after layer of secrets and misconceptions making this story both a compelling and intelligent read. However, perceptive as Maggie O'Farrell may be in her observations, her story would not work as well as it does without effective characterisations - and Gretta is a rather amazing creation in more ways than one: religious, loving and maternal, yet loud, boisterous, impulsive and critical; and, to her children, she is sometimes embarrassing with her tent-sized, flower-splotched, home-made dresses and her raincoat held together with staples. Aoife is another character who really shines and Maggie O'Farrell's description of Aoife's dyslexic difficulties and of the desperate strategies she has to employ to conceal these difficulties is powerfully and sensitively conveyed to the reader. I could write a lot more about what I enjoyed about this story - but I won't, because I hope by now that you will want to read this warm and involving novel for yourself. Recommended.
on 28 June 2013
This book landed on my desk when a colleague, who is a great fan of the author, suggested I read it. At first I found it hard to get used to the style of writing, but im glad I persevered as the book was interesting, and some of the characters were very descriptive and well developed. However, I found the plot to be quite plodding, and although I read it pretty quickly, I wasn't left amazed or satisfied with the ending, which was a bit of an 'oh, ok then' moment. The heatwave, as other reviewers have said, does seem like a bit of an afterthough and doesn't tie in with anything thats happening, but it does set the scene, and you can imagine people sweating through London heatwaves in the 70s from the description. I'm reading Esme Lennox (same author) now, and I'm hoping this one will do a bit more for me!
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 1 November 2013
Having loved After You'd Gone and really enjoying subsequent novels from Maggie O'Farrell, I was looking forward to this read and was happy to recommend it to the book group as a likely entertaining experience.
I found it impossible to warm to. The heatwave backdrop of the title appeared to add nothing to the plot. The family was tiresome and I felt the whole thing was contrived and slow. I felt I completed reading the book just to get to the end to see if anything interesting actually happened. The characters' names kept leaping out and annoying me before I actually got to them, almost as if I was dreading what they might do or say next. The story of the missing father was unsatisfying and I simply couldn't understand how the reading problem could be missed by everyone who had come into Aiofe's life. I felt little empathy for anyone except Aiofe and overall, for me, the whole story just did not add up to anything. It was a bit like looking forward to a dinner out with good old friends and finding the company boring and the food indifferent. I was hoping for lyrical prose and stunning metaphors, but when such expressions arose they felt clumsy and inappropriate; perhaps it was all there but impossible to focus on due to my growing disinterest as I progressed through the book. Sorry to report that this novel just did not work for me.
on 4 November 2013
I'm a bit divided in my feelings about this novel, as O'Farrell's writing is evocative and enchanting (even though several 'him' and 'her' where it should read 'he' and 'she' were a bit distracting). Her character development is excellent and the intricacies of the relationships are detailed and believable. Sadly, the story itself is lacking. Halfway through the novel I found myself wondering if anything was going to happen, and by the end I realised that it hadn't.
on 10 September 2013
It grieves me to give three stars only to a Maggie O'Farrell book. I have read everything she has written up to date and rate her highly. I waited for some time before downloading this book to my Kindle because there were very mixed reviews. I am rather glad that I did because I wouldn't have wanted to pay the original price for it. Were my expectations too high! I don't think so. I just wanted and fully expected it to be as good as everything else she has written. The depth and emotion that Maggie usually brings to her characters, just seemed to be lacking here. If you haven't read her before, I would NOT start wih this one. Any of her earlier books - great!
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 8 March 2013
I liked this book. (I don't write reviews of books I don't like; often I don't finish them.) But, after previous books by Maggie O'Farrell that I've loved (" After You'd Gone", "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox"...), I felt this one didn't quite get there. Yes, the writing is beautiful and appropriate. Yes, there is some great characterisation (especially Aoife). Was there something being said about the effect of an atavistic religiosity on a generation that grew up away from its roots? Or was it just a dysfunctional group of people who happened to be related to one another for the convenience of the novel? And why is the mystery of the missing man such an insignificant part of the plot as it develops? Don't get me wrong, I liked this book; but it didn't grab me in the way some of Maggie O'Farrell's other books have done.