This has been a summer of personal heatwaves. I’m at that time in a woman’s life where a heat wave can happen at any moment. I began my spring/summer with a heat wave at work. The air conditioner was on the fritz and for over six weeks we worked in sweltering temperatures, most days over 86 degrees with no windows to open so no hope for a breeze. Combine the two and it’s just not a pretty picture! I just spent a lovely week on Cape Cod during a heat wave in an antique house with no air conditioners, and barely slept (if you know me I’m not a good sleeper anyway so this was just brutal.) What better time to start reading Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell. I truly enjoyed one of her other novels The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (read preblog) so I was looking forward to her newest.
Set during a historic British heat wave in 1976 we meet the Riordan family. Trees dry up and lose their leaves, black top melts, and as human beings find themselves sinking into the pavement they begin to lose their grip and do things that are out of the ordinary.
As he has for 30 years, patriarch Robert sets off at 7AM to get the paper leaving his wife Gretta to her breakfast and her thoughts. As time passes she realizes that if all has gone as usual he should have already returned.
“Gretta goes out through the living room into the hall, opens the front door and walks out onto the path, sidestepping that rusting carcass of bicycle Robert uses. She looks left, she looks right …Gretta puts her hands on her hips. She calls her husband’s name, once, twice. The flank of garden wall throws the sound back to her.”
When Robert doesn’t return after eleven hours Gretta calls her son Michael Francis who calls daughters Monica and youngest daughter Aoife. Michael, the eldest, is a school teacher on summer break with a troubled marriage and two young children. Monica is dealing with two step daughters who resent her and a partner, Peter, who never seems to take Monica’s side. She’s stuck in a rural English town where she feels isolated and unwanted. A town that knows Peter and his ex and want them reunited. And finally Aoife, a surprise baby ten years younger than Monica, a problem child from birth, who has run away from her family, her home, her history, her country and is living on the fringe in New York City.
As the family comes together we get a glimpse of the human frailties, misdeeds, and lies that have worked their way, like water into the crevices of failing mortar, into their relationships and have weakened the Riordan family foundation.
O’Farrell has done a wonderful job of making this family human and real. Families are messy and problematic. What draws us together can sometimes tear us apart. Lies are easy until the truth inevitably comes out, and sometimes it’s harder to forgive a wound inflicted from someone so close and trusted.