Instructions for a Heatwave, Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell and Kate Morton are inextricably linked in my mind. I am not sure whether it’s because they’re truly similar — with olden-times Britain and modern-day family members finding out secrets — or because they’re very faintly similar and I encountered them at the same time in my life. Weigh in if you have an opinion!

And now on to Maggie O’Farrell’s brand new book.

Instructions for a Heatwave (Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is less suspenseful than the previous books by Maggie O’Farrell that I’ve read (or else I am maybe remembering her previous books all wrong). Gretta Riordan’s husband leaves the house one day — as usual — and just does not come back again. Panicked, she calls up her three children — sensible Monica, anxious Michael Francis, and the late arrival, the problem child, Aoife — to come home at once. It’s been ages since anybody was in regular contact with Aoife (she never got along with Gretta, and Monica has not recovered from a several-years-past falling-out), while Michael Francis and Monica are struggling to shore up their struggling marriages.

Instructions for a Heatwave — like all of Maggie O’Farrell’s books — is at its best when exploring family dynamics. Maggie O’Farrell’s best skill, I think, is writing about the space between people. Although she’s writing about an exceptional time in the lives of these characters, it’s the small everyday things that tell the story of their relationships, like this exchange after Gretta scolds Michael Francis, and Aoife defends him:

Gretta makes a small noise of disgust and gestures as if wafting away a bad smell. “Oh, you two.”

“You two what?”

“It’s always been the same?”

“Always taking the other one’s side. No matter if they’re in the wrong.”

With family, it’s never just the events that are happening, the words that you’re saying. Any moment can suddenly be imbued with all the weight and significance of decades of knowing each other. O’Farrell is wonderful at making her characters’ relationships feel lived-in that way.

Particularly she’s wonderful at letting the reader see into the family mythology — Monica is the good one (the favorite), and Michael Francis is the anxious guilty one, and Aoife is the unpredictable one, the wild child. Robert, their father, is quiet; Gretta, their mother, is gregarious and histrionic. When they have been apart from each other for a while, you can see how they’ve fallen into thinking of each other as cartoons of their assigned family quality. The main shock of finding Robert Riordan gone is that the family has been accustomed to forget his interiority, to forget that their quiet, undemanding father ever had a life outside of them.

At times O’Farrell seems not to have quite enough time to weave all of her plot strands together. Aoife’s life, blighted by her ferocious efforts to hide the fact that she’s never learned to read, is fleshed out quite vividly, but there are areas of Michael Francis’s life, and particularly of Monica’s, that seemed brought up only to be tossed away. Both their marriages are struggling, and for good reasons, but their spouses never come into focus as people. I wanted Monica and Michael Francis to be used as well as Aoife was, to draw out different sides of the other characters and different ways of thinking about their lives.

The slightly desultory handling of some of these plot threads was frustrating in the end. The climax felt anticlimactic, as the characters shifted almost instantly into acceptance of their altered situation. Missing out on their process of living in a new version of normal — particularly, missing out on the conversations between the siblings about what happened — was disappointing. I felt unfinished when the book was over.

Note: I received this review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Also, if you buy a book through one of my affiliate links, I get a small amount of money.

  • You know, that is kind of my general gripe with O’Farrell: I always like her books, but always end up feeling somewhat unsatisfied, as if everything just needed a little more expansion and polishing.

  • You brought up some great points about this book. Feeling unfinished about a book is never a good thing. I’ve never read anything by O’Farrell before so I think I’ll pass this one up for now and read her previous work.

  • I went to a concert once where the singer explained that he never does encores because “when I’m done with you, you won’t *want* any more.” (It was true, too.) That could be one test of a great book, as well.

  • I like what you said about how families fall into roles. I see that all the time with my family, but it’s sometimes hard to convey or show in fiction. This sounds pretty good, despite some loose ends.