Maggie O’Farrell is one of my favorite writers, and this book may be one of her best. It’s about a very dysfunctional family suffering through a heatwave in 1976 London. Robert, the father, goes out one morning for a paper and doesn’t come back. He’s recently retired, and the police don’t suspect foul play. He’s just gone.
He leaves behind his wife, Gretta, and their three grown children Michael Francis, Monica, and Aoife. Monica and Michael Francis are struggling with their own dysfunctional marriages, and no one really knows what’s become of Aoife, who took off years ago for New York. Eventually, the siblings come together to try to figure out what happened to their father.
What ensues is one of the most richly drawn portraits of a family I can remember. O’Farrell draws you into this family and slowly, gradually exposes the problems and flaws in each character. Gretta is a bossy, controlling mother who hasn’t managed to control any of her children (not surprisingly). Monica is one of those people who appears to have it together but is deeply unhappy. She’s judgmental and closed-up – the exact opposite of her much younger sister Aoife. Even though Monica pretty much raised Aoife, they are no longer speaking.
I loved Aoife’s character, though she’s my polar opposite. She’s born screaming and completely disrupts the lives of the entire family. I love this description:
She beat the air with those fists of hers, filled the room with sound; she clawed at Gretta’s hair and neck, gripped by her own private agony, she wept tears that ran over her face and into the collars of her matinee jackets. Her legs would work up and down, as if she were a toy with a winding mechanism, her face would crumple in on itself and the room would fill with jagged sounds that could have cut you, if you’d stood too close.
Aoife never learned to read because she struggles with something like dyslexia: letters seem to fly around on the page and rearrange themselves. It’s a tragedy that this young woman spends her life covering up her illiteracy because no one ever diagnosed the problem.
I think this is O’Farrell’s best book to date, because the writing is just so powerful. It’s a little less story driven than her last two, and more character driven. This is a book where I highlighted a lot.
Her siblings are looking at her with that mixture of superiority and pity. She is again a pygmy, a Lilliputian in the shadow of their implacable knowledge. She is again five, asking her mother one night how the kittens got in the cat’s tummy and wondering, in the blistering gale of their laughter, what Monica and Michael Francis found so funny and why she couldn’t join in.
I loved, loved, loved the portrayal of the sibling and parent relationships in this book. You don’t need to have any of the problems these characters have, you’ll still sympathize with them (and at the same time you frequently want to beat them over the head with something). For example, Monica is perceived as “the favorite”, and her siblings resent her for relating better with their mother (even though she has injuries of her own). Michael Francis seems to have everything come easy (but doesn’t) and Aoife is seen as the “wild child”, who is never quite taken seriously by her older siblings. None of these feel like stereotypes, and all of them are issues I feel my own siblings have dealt with.
Some of you with very functional families will wonder if it’s realistic for siblings to go years without speaking to each other, over things that don’t seem like a huge deal. I can tell you it seems perfectly realistic to me.
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 a decade a day?
O’Farrell has a nice way of letting the story unfold gradually. I will say there are moments in about the second quarter of the book where it feels very dark and you don’t particularly like anyone. If you reach that point, and you want them all to go away, keep reading.
The heatwave as metaphor is not the strongest part of this book. It’s not really necessary as there are sparks enough when this family comes together (it’s a funny coincidence that my last read, Monsoon Season, also used weather as metaphor for emotional distress). I think the clinical-sounding title really does the novel a disservice. Still, the 1976 setting works (it would be harder to tell this story in a day of cell phones and email) and I loved the contrast between London, Ireland, and New York.
This was one of my favorite books of the year. Highly recommended.