Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell

I do like a family drama. Well, at least I like them in a fictional sense rather than my own personal ones if they ever happen. That said it isn’t the most of original storylines for a book is it? Yet when an author brings a new angle on it, or writes a family so convincingly that you feel a part of their drama then there is nothing more compelling in literary fiction. In ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ that is exactly what Maggie O’Farrell creates.

***** Tinder Press, hardback, 2013, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It is the summer or 1976 when, after announcing that he is going to the local newsagents for a paper, Robert Riordan simply disappears leaving his wife Greta both horrified and mystified as to where her husband has gone. She soon calls upon all of her children to come home and help, however it seems none of the Riordan offspring really considers themselves a part of ‘the family’ for varying reasons.

Michael Francis is too busy caught up in the state of his marriage, his wife having just discovered the Open University and feminism and possibly herself, which we learn was really only a marriage after he got his girlfriend, now wife, pregnant after some rather angry sex aimed at his now father-in-law – it involves a hilarious conversation about whether being from Irish parents he might happen to be in the IRA. Monica is now married for the same time and coming to terms with the fact she doesn’t really like being a stepmom, and wonders if she might have liked her own children after all, she also happens to be terrified of the countryside, which now she lives in it is a quandary.  Aoife is the black sheep of the family and after a tempestuous relationship with her mother and estrangement with her sister has vanished to New York to get away. Now of course they must all come back to comfort their mother, try and find their father and also confront each other.

Whilst a family drama is nothing new in terms of a premise for a novel, Maggie O’Farrell masters it and creates something new and different with the characters in the Riordan family, the situations they find themselves in and of course the mystery of Roberts disappearance and the enigma. Though the novel is very much set in the present day, well the ridiculous heat of the infamous never ending summer of 1976, ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ is a novel that really looks at a/the families past too. I thought this was mainly done through Aoife and Gretta who, for me personally, take the novel to another level (or two or three) above any great literary family drama.

Firstly Gretta for her semi-tragic role within the family, and also for the big laughs in the book – sometimes at her expense, and as a woman who can completely rewrite her own history and often does. You know from the start, as she bakes bread in the sweltering heat, that here is a woman with hidden depths and a life behind her. Aoife is a real enigma and, for me, had the most gripping and compelling (even more so than Roberts disappearance, which occasionally you forget about) story with the relationship breakdown with her sister and also with her dyslexia or curse as she sees it, which at the time was not diagnosed and people merely thought someone was inept, put upon her by ‘a sorcerer who was in a bad mood’ when he passed her pram. I found her fascinating and her story incredibly moving. I also don’t think I have understood dyslexia so well before.

“There was a sudden, crushing weight on her chest and it was difficult to draw breath into her lungs; please, her mind was saying, she wasn’t sure to whom, please, please. Let me get through this, just this once, I’ll do anything, anything at all. ‘Contract’, she could recognise, right at the top of the page; that was good; Evelyn had said it was a contract. Or did it say ‘contact’? Was there an ‘r’ there? Aoife pressed her left eye hard with the heel of her palm and scanned the now undulating string of letters that made up the words. Was there an ‘r’ and if so, where ought it to be? Before the ‘t’ or after the ‘t’ or next to the ‘c’ and, if so, which ‘c’? Panic cramming her throat, she told herself to leave ‘contract’ or ‘contact’ or whatever the hell it was and look down the page and when she did, she knew she was doomed.”  

The conversations between the characters are another master stroke of O’Farrell’s as it comes of the page as real as the characters who speak it. I mentioned before the awkward conversation between Michael Francis and his father in law over dinner, a family he is amazed by because of ‘how nice they all were to each other’, about if he is in the IRA or linked to it, which was prevalent at the time. The conversations between couples who don’t really know if they know each other anymore or maybe got the other one wrong at the start, sibling bickering and the way an atmosphere can change slowly over time as family members start to remember what it was that annoyed them about each other etc are all completely believable.

As you may have guessed I really, really, really liked ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ and found myself gripped to it like it was a thriller because of the gripping and believable characters and the fact that there are a few mysteries and secrets, which all families have, to keep you going. I would heartily recommend any one give this delightful, and also occasionally rather dark and distressing, domestic drama a whirl, you will be pulled into the Riordan family far better than any ordinary soap opera and its stunningly written.

You can hear me in conversation with Maggie O’Farrell on my new podcast ‘You Wrote The Book!’, I now need to get a wriggle on and read her first three novels as so far I have only read her latest three and each book cements the fact she is becoming one of my favourites more and more each time. Are you a fan of O’Farrell? Which of her books have you read and what did you think?  Have any of you read ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ yet and if so what did you think?


Filed under Books of 2013, Maggie O'Farrell, Review, Tinder Press

9 responses to “Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell

  1. David

    I’ve been really looking forward to your review of this, Simon. This was the first time I’ve read O’Farrell and I must say I thought it was immensely readable – I was hooked from page one and zipped through it. She’s a fine storyteller, vastly entertaining and her unfussy prose is very skillful (as you say, there’s some cracking dialogue, and some good funny bits alongside the more moving stuff). I too found Aoife’s strand to be the highlight of the novel, though I liked (and cared about) all the characters.

    But, given the title I’d expected her to make much more of the heatwave – I felt like occasionally she’d forget the setting (except when it was convenient to the plot) and much of it could just as easily have been set now on a winter’s day, though I admired the way she avoided the common trap of decorating her plot with a virtual shopping list of period details. I don’t necessarily agree with you that she is doing anything out of the ordinary in terms of family dramas, and the crisis that precipitates this one felt like something that would only happen in a book or a film. And I could have wished she hadn’t tied up every plot thread so neatly and happily (even Monica’s is sort of happy).

    Which all makes it sound like I wasn’t so keen on this book, and that couldn’t be further from the truth – in fact I’ve since got a copy of ‘The Hand That First Held Mine’ and am looking forward to giving that a go. I suspect I would’ve been more enthused about it had I read it at a different time. Unfortunately I made the mistake of reading it straight after another novel set during a heatwave (Molly Panter-Downes’s ‘One Fine Day’) which – aside from being elegant and witty and stunningly written – not only had a palpable sense of heat dripping from every page, but used the hot weather in a much more original way (representing a kind of last hurrah or Indian Summer for a particular class of English society and a way of life).

    I did lend this to my Mum after I’d read it and she completely loved it. I think the only negative thing she had to say about it was regarding a pregnancy (trying to avoid spoilers here!). There’s a conversation along the lines of “Are you in trouble?” “‘In trouble’? This is 1976!” which my Mum reckoned didn’t ring true for the era (or as she put it: ‘if it’d’ve been me, my Dad would’ve chucked me out’).

  2. I loved your author interview with Maggie O’Farrell (the idea of “You Wrote The Book” is fabulous!), and have queued the book to read. Alas, in the colonies it isn’t available until June. But this all reminds me that I wanted to read “After You’d Gone” which is readily available NOW. Thanks, Simon!

  3. gaskella

    I was doing O-Levels during the ’76 heatwave – it did get hot in that gym, and not just our brains working overtime. I haven’t read O’Farrell – I know I should – I already own three, but this one does seem to be calling to me.

  4. Ruthiella

    This does sound good. I have never read any O’Farrell, but I have The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox from my library which I am hoping to get to soon!

  5. This is supposed to be on the shelves of the library but it seems to have disappeared. I do so like family drama stories and this is definitely going to be one book I am looking out for.

  6. You’ve persuaded me to go out and buy this today! I have read a few of Maggie O’Farrell’s novels, most recently “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox” which I loved and heartily recommend. I plan to have a listen to your podcast later.

  7. I got it last week! I’m looking forward to reading it.

  8. Pingback: Books of 2013; Part II | Savidge Reads

  9. Sally Robertson Smith

    But what happened to Robert Roirdan’s wife, who ran away with his brother? I assumed that Robert had gone to Ireland to find her once the brother died. Have I missed something, or was this a loose end that was never meant to be tied up?

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