Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Guest Book Review: Maggie O'Farrell - Instructions for a Heatwave

Reviewed by Danielle Pullen

It's July 1976. In London, it hasn't rained for months, gardens are filled with aphids, water comes from a standpipe, and Robert Riordan tells his wife Gretta that he's going round the corner to buy a newspaper. He doesn't come back. 

The search for Robert brings Gretta's children - two estranged sisters and a brother on the brink of divorce - back home, each wih different ideas as to where their father might have gone. None of them suspects that their mother might have an explanation that even now she cannot share.

Robert and Gretta Riordan have been happily married for all of their adult lives. They have 3 grown-up children, Monica, Michael Francis and Aoife, and several grandchildren. They are settled into a routine, accepting one another’s oddities and eccentricities. That is, of course, until the morning of 15th July 1976 when Robert leaves the house to buy a newspaper and does not return.

What ensues is a tense few days when all of the couple’s children head back to their childhood home to help find their father. Monica, living in the idyllic Gloucestershire countryside, is Gretta’s first-born and the favourite according to her siblings. She is successful at everything except being a step-mother to her partner Peter’s two girls. Michael Francis lives a typically suburban family life in London but is struggling to save his marriage and keep his family together whilst regrets about past mistakes simmer under the surface. Aoife, estranged in New York, is outwardly strong and independent with a partner on the wrong side of the law. Internally she battles to keep her own secret which is the real reason she ran away.

Anyone who reads this book hoping for a plot-driven search for Robert Riordan will probably find themselves a little disappointed. Although there is a linear plot-line concerning his whereabouts, his disappearance simply acts as a catalyst to bring the other family members together. O’Farrell is always at her best when examining the relationships between characters, particularly siblings and the child-parent dynamic. She is able to explore the underlying feelings and emotions using simple dialogue so that her writing never feels heavy-going. In Instructions For a Heatwave all of the characters felt believable and readers will be able to see themselves (and their own family members) in many aspects of the characters’’ behaviour. The able, independent and slightly boho Aoife certainly reminded me of someone rather close to home!

In terms of tone, O’Farrell’s novels are all set in atmospheric locations and conditions. The fact that this novel is set during the heatwave of 1976 adds to the relentless and charged atmosphere between the family members. There is certainly a feeling that the characters’’ actions and emotions are affected by the meteorological conditions. I’ll not divulge the ultimate location of plot as I risk giving away some key details, but, suffice to say, the location adds to the almost-gothic and claustrophobic aura of O’Farrell’s writing.

I must confess that Maggie O’Farrell is my favourite author so I approached this, her sixth novel, with high expectations. I was not disappointed. If you like character-driven novels with realistic dialogue, this is the book for you. This is right up there with O’Farrell’s masterpiece, After You’d Gone.

I'd like to thank Georgina at Headline for sending us a proof copy of this book to review.

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