Maggie O’Farrell: Instructions For a Heatwave (2013)

I’m so behind with book reviews that it’s highly unlikely, I’ll ever catch up. This would have been one of many I was going to put aside “for later”, but the title’s too fitting to postpone reviewing it. And it was enjoyable.

The heatwave of the title refers to the heatwave of 1976, one of the worst the UK has ever seen. I don’t know anyone who was alive back then, no matter how small, who wouldn’t remember it. While it’s possibly as hot now as it was then, the heat started earlier, I think, in June and there were massive water shortages. Let’s hope that it won’t come to that. Although it looks dire already. “Over here”, where I live, Continental Europe, it’s even hotter. And, just like in the UK, we have no air conditioning. In Switzerland it’s even forbidden to have them in your own home. Small ones, yes, but they don’t help much. Before diving into the review, let me moan some more – yesterday, the thermometer in our flat showed 35°! Only two degrees less than outside. Sleeping, you wonder? Not so much. My poor cats crawl into dark corners, hoping dark means cool and stay there until the evening. Normally, they run around all day. Unfortunately, he’s afraid of the fan, while she enjoys it

Now on to Maggie O’Farrell. As I mentioned already, Instructions For a Heatwave is set in 1976 during the heatwave and tells the story of the Riordan family. One morning, the dad, Robert Riordan, leaves the house and doesn’t come back. His wife Gretta is shocked and flustered. She calls her children hoping they will come and help her. Already the first phone calls show the family dynamics. There are misunderstandings, half-truths, accusations, exaggerations, tensions. And the three children are facing troubles of their own, that are now, through this family emergency, magnified. At the same time, the emergency shows how frail their family bonds are, how dysfunctional. Gretta is a hypochondriac. She changes subjects when she feels she doesn’t want to talk about something and that is often. She pops pills, makes stuff up and has her kids constantly on alert. Some of the reasons for her behaviour will be revealed later.

Michael Francis is the oldest sibling and in the middle of his own family crisis. It may very well be that his wife, who is reinventing herself, will leave him. He’s not entirely without fault though. Monica, the first daughter, married for the second time, is also doubtful about the future of her marriage. And Aoife, the youngest, is in New York, trying desperately to hold on to a life she loves but that is threatened because it’s built on a lie – nobody knows that she’s a functional illiterate.

When they hear of their dad’s disappearance they all return home. At first, the reunion is frosty and awkward. There are too many things that have been left unsaid in the past and too many family secrets. The biggest is the reason for their dads’ disappearance.

It will take them a few days to sort some things out and then they take a family trip to Ireland, where the parents originally come from.

Instructions for a Heatwave is in many ways an astonishing book. It’s so intricately told, the stories are so tightly interwoven that I was constantly wondering – how did she do that? She moves in out of characters’ minds, switches from the present to the past and back again, but it’s never confusing because it’s so well done.

This is the story of a dysfunctional family but one with hope. They do not give up on each other nor on themselves. Gretta was possibly my favourite character although she reminded me of my late mother (minus my mother’s meanness that is). It’s fascinating to see a character description that resonates so much. Just like Gretta, my mother would always change the subject if she didn’t want to talk about something, pretending she hadn’t heard what had been said and then pretending she had an attack of something (cough, sickness, stomach cramps, “nerves”) and urgently needed her pills. Also, like Gretta, she would start chatting with anyone, finding out family stories and other people’s secrets without ever revealing any of her own. Since the Riordan’s are Irish and Catholics, that was something I could relate to as well. Looking back, it was no fun being brought up by a Catholic mother – my dad was anti-clerical, so that balanced things out a bit.

While this book resonated a lot with me because of my own history, I still think anyone who loves complex family stories would like this very much. In the past, I had mixed experiences with Maggie O’Farrell. I loved The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, but didn’t care for another one of her books (I think it was After You’d Gone). This rich and lovely novel has put me in the mood to read more by her. Her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am is already on my piles.

20 thoughts on “Maggie O’Farrell: Instructions For a Heatwave (2013)

  1. Great review, I really enjoyed this one too. O’Farrell weaves the stories of the family together brilliantly. I was quite little in 1976 though I have vague memories of sun burn scorched grass and sharing bath water with my sister. This year has been plenty hot enough for me, my preferred daytime temperature is a pleasant sunny 21 or 22 with a light breeze. I have spent too many nights this year where it hasn’t got below 20 at midnight even.

    • Thanks Ali. They way she wove it all together is amazing.
      I’ve asked a couple of people if they remembered 1976 and even those who were little like you did. I can’t remember a similar heatwave from my youth here in Switzerland or France.
      I really don’t like this heat. At first it still cooled down at night but that’s over now. And the apartments are so hot by now. Plus I’m one of only a few people who loves rain. I can’t go without for too long. Between 16 and 26 is ideal for me.

  2. Sorry to hear about the intense heat that you are dealing with. Hopefully you will get some relief soon.

    The book sounds really good. I have come to appreciate well written family interaction stories. I guess having the story take place during the heatwave raises tension.

    • It’s awfully hot but right after pressing “post” it started to rain so hopefully it will cool down. We’re so not equipped for such temperatures.
      The heatwave in the book did aggravate things. And it served as a metaphor too. It’s so skillfully written.

  3. Gosh, I recall that summer so well. The endless sunny days, everyone outside the whole time, the countess trips to the local Lido to splash around. Somehow the heat seemed a lot easier to cope with back then!

    It’s been a while since I’ve read anything by Maggie O’Farrell – my last was Esme Lennox, an old book group read which went down pretty well. She’s good when it comes to capturing emotions, the family relationships and bonds that tie people together – that’s one of the things I recall about her writing.

    • I couldn’t agree more. I never suffered from the heat like I do know. But it also depends on the house or flat you live in. This one is on two floors, one of which under the roof. It gets very hot and the. Spreads to the first floor. The first weeks when it cooled down at night we’re almost enjoyable but over 30 inside and at night . . .
      I liked Esme Lennox too but this might be more complex, more accomplished. The character descriptions are amazing. I tend to prefer more lyrical books, books with more atmosphere but what she does, she does very well.

  4. Great review, Caroline. I loved this book; it really captures the endless summer of 1976. I had just started work as a trainee librarian at Aberdeen University and spent the summer hiding in the stacks! I enjoyed Esme Lennox and The Hand that first held mine. I am. I am. I am is next up.

    • Thank you, Morag. I had a feeling she captured that summer well but right now, it feels so very similar. People get a little crazy with this heat but that summer must have been something for people who lived in the UK. Hiding in the stacks would just be the thing to do.
      I haven’t read The Hand That First Held Mine but was very tempted to get it. Good to know you liked it. I’m keen on reading I am, I am, I am soon.

  5. Beautiful review, Caroline! I love the title! So sorry to know about the heat wave in your place. I didn’t know that it was illegal to have air-conditioning at home in Switzerland. I hope they change that rule. I loved the premise of this story – the heat wave leading to strange happenings in the family and secrets coming out. I will add this to my TBR. I have read one Maggie O’Farrell book before and loved it. Hoping to read this and others. Love the title of her memoir. Will check that out too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Thank you, Vishy. It’s a great title. I hope you’ll enjoy this as well. The memoir sounds so interesting. Fourteen brushes with death or something like that.
      I don’t think tha air conditioning rule will change as the reasons are ecological. I find it makes a lot of sense even though it’s challenging. I never understood the American frenzy of living in an air conditioned world, where it’s actualky cold inside most of the time. Less than 22 degrees inside is hard for me. I like it even a bit warmer but not outside. And not hotter. Complicated. 🙂

      • Sorry to know that the air-conditioning rule won’t change, Caroline. I can understand the ecological reason for the same. I hope the heat wave goes away and the temperatures come down and is in your comfort zone. This year seems to be unusually hot in your part of the world. I hope it is a one-time thing. Take care.

        • Right after publishing this post, temperatures dropped and are still manageable. Next week it will get hot again but hopefully not over 33. It’s actually more common than you’d think but thus time it was hotter for longer. The worst I remember was 2003. That was like 1976 for the UK. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t remember it. The heat started in May, didn’t stop until September and it never rained. It was awful. Apparently that year there were more violent crimes than ever. I’m always scared we’ll have that kind of summer again because my apartment back then never got that hot and still it was bad.

  6. I was vaguely intending to read this during the heatwave (and have been meaning to read more O’Farrell since I read Esme Lennox about ten years ago) but… it didn’t happen, and now the heatwave is over the inspiration is gone. But it sounds really good, so I won’t leave it forever!

    • Lucky you. It seems like the heatwave is over today here but will return next week.
      I liked Esme Lennox but thus might be even better. In spite of the heatwave, it’s not really a summery book, so you could read it any time. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

    • Thanks, yes, I’m very interested. I’ll visit shortly. As I said, she was a bit hit or miss but even the misses were good, just not for me at that particular time, so you’ll have plenyt to enjoy, I’m sure.

  7. Great review, Caroline. I read I Am I Am I Am but didn’t like it as much as I wanted to. This sounds more like something I would enjoy.
    A/C is illegal in Swiss homes? I never knew that. But when I lived in Germany we didn’t have it there either. I prefer breathing fresh air with the windows open, which we can do most of the year here, but lately it’s been hot and humid. We run the A/C when it gets really uncomfortable.

    • Thanks, Carole. I think you’d like this. Too bad about I Am I Am I Am. I won’t get to it as soon as I hoped though.
      I could imagine Germany handles it like Switzerland. I would have put it in at night, I’m sure but never below 24.
      I’m sorry to hear you had a humid summer. That’s no fun but usually it means rain.

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