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.

Archer’s Goon, Diana Wynne Jones

March has whizzed by in a whirlwind of cherry blossoms and other even lovelier events, doing me a great disservice by never letting me catch my breath long enough to schedule a post about a Diana Wynne Jones book for the Diana Wynne Jones March operated by the wonderful Kristen of We Be Reading. March has happened so fast I didn’t even remember to relish March 4th, the only day of the year that’s a command. Ordinarily I say “March forth!” with tedious frequency on that day, and this year I forgot. Sigh. March, you whirlwind vixen.

Archer’s Goon, fittingly enough in a post that began with a time gripe, is a book about the constraints of time. Howard’s father Quentin, a writer, has for years written 2000 words each month and sent them to a friend called Lovejoy as a way of keeping his creative juices flowing. This month, an enormous Goon turns up at the house demanding the 2000 words, which Quentin says he has already sent. The Goon says that Archer — apparently Lovejoy’s boss — hasn’t received the words and demands to have them. Howard’s family is gradually beseiged by a group of seven siblings (Archer, Dillian, Shine, Hathaway, Torquil, Erskine, and Venturus, and yes, I have read Archer’s Goon often enough that I know those names in order by heart) who run various aspects of the town, are confined to stay within the town limits, and inexplicably seem desperate to acquire Quentin’s 2000 words.

As with many Diana Wynne Jones books, Archer’s Goon did not immediately take its place in my heart as a DWJ favorite. Because I apparently can’t talk about Diana Wynne Jones without saying “She’s better on a reread,” I’ll say it again. There are never too many times to say it! Diana Wynne Jones is better on a reread. And Archer’s Goon particularly is better on a reread. The plot is fairly complicated, and because it takes a while for most of the basic questions to be resolved, I missed a lot of the small, fun stuff about Archer’s Goon.

And the small fun stuff is what makes it so great. The power-mad siblings persecute Quentin relentlessly to make him give in and send them the words, and the things they invent to do, within their own spheres of power, are really funny and terrible. It’s brilliant fun how Diana Wynne Jones gradually lets you see the dynamics between the siblings: that Archer hates Dillian and Dillian hates him right back, but Dillian and Torquil are sort of allies. Sibling dynamics are DWJ’s best thing, and the Archer’s Goon siblings are, if not my favorites, at least in my top two. It’s between them and the Dark Lord of Derkholm family.

Moreover, the end of Archer’s Goon is one of the best and most satisfying endings of any of her books. A common and true complain about DWJ is that her endings can feel a little rushed and confusing, but not with Archer’s Goon. The characters realize things that they’ve been building up to realizing all along. The questions that were raised at the beginning get resolved. The good guys put paid to the bad guys. And the climactic fight is just so, so funny. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that I can never read the scene without picturing Diana Wynne Jones at her typewriter giggling madly as she wrote it all out. It’s the best.

As many longtime readers know, I am the hugest Diana Wynne Jones fan. As you may also know, she died last year, in March. I am so grateful for all the books of hers that we do have, and I am terribly sad that there won’t be any new ones forthcoming. But if you haven’t read anything by her, you are in for a treat.

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