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Maggie O’Farrell

Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell is an author whose books are a “must read” for me. I gave away The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox as part of World Book Night last year and that one reminded me of when I had a summer job in a local institution for those sectioned for various reasons such as being “feeble”.

The latest novel Instructions for a Heatwave also took me back to this period of my own history because when I was working in those kitchens in the middle of a heatwave scrubbing pots before putting them in a bath of boiling water to sterilise them, I remember we wore underwear and nothing else under our white uniforms to try and keep cool.

It is in this period that the novel is set. I remember that it was illegal to water the garden but hadn’t realised that all the other restrictions were in force. These restrictions are used to split the novel into sections as we follow the Riordan family crisis. This Irish family of three grown up children are called back home to the London house where they were raised when the newly retired father goes out one morning to buy the paper and doesn’t return. The three children are all having their own problems at home – a dead cat and suspicious stepchildren, a husband being sidelined by his wife’s newly formed need to “find herself” and an undiagnosed dyslexic in New York hiding her boss’s paperwork because she can’t read it – but they come home to help Gretta the mother try and figure out where the father has gone.

Old family feuds and slights rear their ugly heads as Monica, Michael and Aoife try to pin their mother down to give them clues about what might have led up to this disappearance.

There are lovely moments such as Michael being welcomed back into his own house by a women attending his wife’s discussion group, only to find out that it is his sister who is being greeted while he continues to be ignored and where Monica is bundled into a store so she doesn’t need to come face to face with her ex husband.

Like life, we don’t get satisfying conclusions for each of the characters and we don’t really get an explanation for why the father has disappeared even although we do find out what he has been doing during his week away. Like most families, that which binds is more important that that which splits asunder.

The writing is satisfying and as usual I wanted to read on to find out what bits of the story would be concluded.



I’m sure I’m not alone in having those wtf moments when I’m humming a particular song just before it comes on the radio or tv, or thinking about someone just before they phone “out of the blue”.

My latest one was that last Monday I was in Florence being shown around the city by an enthusiastic Florentinian who rattled round the city streets drawing our attention to the artistic, cultural and historical highs and lows of the city. When we got to the Uffizi she spoke about the flooding which the city had experienced in the 60s and what a problem this had been for the works of art inside and how there had been constant restoration going on ever since. A week later I started a book which a friend had given me ages ago – Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine –  and came across this paragraph:

It was November 1966. An entire season’s rain had fallen in two days, the river Arno had burst its banks and now the city of Florence was drowning, awash, submerged, the river had spread itself everywhere. In the apartments, in the shops, in the Duomo, up staircases, into the Uffizi. It had claimed furniture, people, statues, plants, animals, plates, cups, paintings, books, maps. It had swept away all the jewels and necklaces and rings from the shops on the Ponte Vecchio: it had folded those things into its brown waters and taken them away, down the silty mud of its bed.

If I had read this book at any other point the paragraph would have been lost but because I read it exactly a week after visiting the city, I found it quite powerful.

Anyway, overall this book is a worthwhile read as all of M O’F’s books have been so far.  The plot itself revolves around two women decades apart whose stories are told mostly chapter about. One woman is a journalist in the 60s and the other is a Finnish woman who has just given birth to a baby after a traumatic 3 day labour. The connection between the characters is gradually revealed over the novel. M O’F writes very well about the exhaustion of giving birth, the vagaries of love and commitment and the pain of loss.

It is mostly about what people feel rather than a rip-roaring, plot-driven action adventure but there are sufficient plot twists to keep the general reader interested.

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