Dysfunctional family alert! (In case you missed this – here are the 24 most dysfunctional families in literature. Of course, I’ve read over 1/3 of these books. Of course!)
The dysfunctional family in Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell lives in London. The parents, Gretta and Robert Riordan, are Irish by birth but have lived in London for all of their marriage. They have three kids: Michael Francis, a high school teacher whose home life is falling apart; Monica, who is on her second marriage and is also quite unhappy; and Aoife, who has escaped to New York to avoid her family and the fact that she is illiterate. It’s the 70s, which means that the times they are a’changin’, and what might have been shocking in Gretta’s day is now not so shocking.
When Instructions For A Heatwave opens, Robert has disappeared. Just walked away from his life, along with a bunch of money from his savings account. His disappearance provides the narrative vehicle for the family to reunite in London, trying to figure out where their father has gone. As is usually the case in these families-unexpectedly-thrust-into-close-quarters books, the reunion provides opportunity for the unearthing of long-held resentments and misunderstandings, as well as the revealing of shocking secrets held for many years. As Aoife thinks after a few days with her sister, “Why is it that twenty-four hours in the company of your family is capable of reducing you to a teenager? Is this retrogression cumulative? Will she continue to lose an decade a day?”
So the construct here isn’t original. But I liked Instructions for a Heatwave a lot. O’Farrell skillfully weaves in the different perspectives each member of the Riordan family, sometimes within the same paragraph, giving a layered view of what is going on without awkward narrative shifts. A few years ago, I read O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which is a much darker and bleaker book than Instructions for a Heatwave. Of Esme, I said, “I liked the rotating voices, and the way that O’Farrell teased the story out slowly, hinting at pivotal moments but not revealing them fully until chapters later.” I felt the same way about Instructions for a Heatwave – I appreciated the way O’Farrell let the stories unfold slowly and quietly, so much so that it was almost possible to miss major plot points if you weren’t paying very close attention.
I won’t say what happened to Robert, of course, but ultimately it wasn’t even the most interesting part of the book. I enjoyed the interrelationships of the nuclear family and the ways in which they emerged from the impromptu reunion changed – mostly for the better – with issues on the way to being resolved and paths forward identified.
I listened to Instructions for a Heatwave on audio. The narrator, John Lee, had great Irish/British accents (at least to this untrained ear) and narrated in a gentle, easy manner, which may have made the book seem more sanguine than the author intended. But it was a good audio experience – 8 CDs and quite easy to follow.
Another good one from Maggie O’Farrell.