Instructions for a Heatwave

Image of Instructions for a Heatwave
Author(s): 
Release Date: 
June 18, 2013
Publisher/Imprint: 
Knopf
Pages: 
304
Reviewed by: 

“Find a place for it on your bookshelf, regardless of what you might have to remove to make room.”

Maggie O’Farrell takes dysfunctional families to a new high with her book Instructions for a Heatwave.

The situation that starts the story is quite simple: Robert Riordan, Gretta’s husband and the father of three adult children takes off one day for no apparent reason. The operative word there is apparent.

From this start, Ms. O’Farrell takes the reader on a roller coaster ride of character histories where character relationships are thick and cushy yet have a sting to them.

The first third of the story introduces each character. Gretta, the Irish middle-aged mother, Catholic to her very marrow, hides many secrets and shares little. When her children question her and begin to dig into why their father walked out and where he might have gone, Gretta closes ranks around herself. She finds myriad other topics to discuss, changing the subject, thus avoiding the obvious questions.

Michael Francis, the oldest of the siblings has his own problems at home. His wife has taken up with a group of free spirited writers and slowly draws herself away from him and their two small children. The farther she moves away, the more Michael Francis must pull duty as both breadwinner and active parent—two roles that overwhelm him. The last thing he needs is a crisis with his parents.

Monica is the middle child. Divorced from her first husband—a fact that threw her own parents into a state of Catholic apoplexy—she finds herself married to Peter, a divorced man with two little girls who visit on the weekends and clearly hate Monica.

They love only their cat that takes ill while everyone is away . . . everyone except Monica . . . and Monica knows that she will bear the brunt of the blame for a dead cat when the daughters arrive for their visit. The last thing she needs is a crisis with her parents.

And then there is Aoife, the baby of the family. Aoife is the wild child—always has been. When she came of age, she left the family, left London, and moved to New York where she struggles to make her own way in life—a way that does not involve her family. Life is a battle and yet she manages. The last thing she needs is a crisis with her parents.

Each of these siblings has his or her own hidden secrets, and much like Gretta they are not open to discussing their personal lives with others. The fear of ridicule and rejection lives on in the lives that seem to be swirling in a downward direction.

Ms. O’Farrell uses an omniscient point of view in small parts through the chapters of each character, but once they each receive the call that Joe has disappeared and they must come home the action ratchets up several notches. When the children arrive at home to try and sort through their father’s disappearance, the pace increases to a point of becoming frenetic. The use of the omniscient point of view is very important to establishing and keeping that pace hectic.

The story leaps from present to past back to present back to past with lightning speed. The reader is thrown into one character’s mind only to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and thrown into another character’s mind within sentences—not paragraphs; not scenes; not chapters but sentences.

Ms. O’Farrell takes the reader on a joy ride of family impairment, where secrets start to rise to the top, and once that action starts there is no stopping it. The secrets will become known and travel throughout the family with lightning speed.

The siblings search through organized papers and discarded notes trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together, but it is not until a chance phone call are they set on a trip from London to Ireland where they encounter the many truths that they have each avoided facing.

The pace of the story slows down once the truth is known and as relationships begin the long road to repair. It won’t be a smooth ride, but it will be a fulfilling one.

Ms. O’Farrell’s writing is strong in so many respects but especially in the way she describes people, places, and things. After the informative telephone call, she describes the collection of Irish family and friends gathered together to share the information as:

“The Irish are good in a crisis, Michael Francis thinks . . . They know what to do, what traditions must be observed; they bring food, casseroles, pies, they dole out tea. The know how to discuss bad news: in murmurs, with shakes of the head, their accents wrapping themselves around the syllables of misfortune.”

Ms. O’Farrell writes in lengthy, complex sentences that are riddled with commas, and yet her sentences are clear and easily understood. The reader does not have go back and scratch her head trying to figure out what each comma separates from the next. She uses this technique throughout, as seen in this sentence where Aoife contemplates the relationship she has with Monica:

“There is a kind of invisible osmosis that occurs between people who have shared a room. If you sleep near someone, night in, night out, breathing each other’s air, it is as if your dreams, your unconscious lives become entangled, the circuits of your minds running close to each other, exchanging information without speech.”

And yet again when Ms. O’Farrell describes Aoife’s sense of Monica’s ignorance of her (Aoife’s) presence:

“Monica’s gaze slips past her and away, as if Aoife isn’t there, as if Aoife is an inexplicable, person-shaped hole in the atmosphere.”

This type of writing draws the readers ever deeper into the pit of the story, unable to let go until the story itself releases them.

This story gets 5 stars out of 5 stars. Find a place for it on your bookshelf, regardless of what you might have to remove to make room.