I should declare that I am a big fan of this author - I loved The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and The Hand that First Held Mine in particular. I chose the former as my first choice for my World Book Night book to distribute in 2012. I was therefore very excited indeed to hear about a new novel coming from Maggie O'Farrell. I've now read Instructions for a Heatwave, and I wasn't at all disappointed. She is such a consistently good writer; I find her novels so incredibly satisfying and rewarding to read.
Each of them is pulled away from the separate lives they have forged for themselves. We learn that Michael's marriage is in a delicate state, that Aiofe has somehow escaped her family and made a life for herself in the USA coping somehow with the secret that seriously afflicts her ability to live her everyday life, and that Monica has an unhappy existence in a home that doesn't feel like her own with children from her partner's previous relationship who don't offer her much affection.
The author has woven a compelling tale that moves seamlessly between the past and the present throughout and has created characters that are beautiful and likeable each in their own flawed, damaged way. I was drawn into the story immediately and felt I wanted to get to the heart of what was really going on in the minds of each of the three adult siblings.
I felt that I engaged with all of the characters; each one of them is so well drawn and believable, and troubled in their own ways. Aiofe carries with her the memories of her difficulties in childhood, and is trying out experiences in life to try and find her place. Monica is coping, yet her past actions haunt her and her present isn't bringing her much happiness. Michael is a very well drawn male character who is struggling with his wife's new studies and friends; he feels neglected and can't understand why him sharing his knowledge with her isn't enough.
Gretta is also an intriguing character whose dominating presence is felt throughout the novel; a strong mother who has brought her children up with certain firm ideas that she holds so dear to, yet there is more to this woman, her past is also fascinating; her history is a key thread that gradually unwinds throughout the book. Some of the passages revealing Gretta's thoughts about her home and the children growing up there are so evocative and moving, her memories are so vivid and clear.
I felt as I was reading that I was looking in on real people seen at their most vulnerable. The situations are heightened by the intensity of the heat that summer. The characters and the events kept me gripped, and the author brings the whole together at the end for a very satisfying conclusion.
Maggie O'Farrell demonstrates such a keen insight into human relationships in her writing; she captures the bonds of family and love that are so strong. She illustrates so convincingly the secrets and anxieties that people carry with them from their past into their present and which can tear people apart and damage the closeness they once shared. She also depicts the need we have for others, the fragility of love and of the lives we have constructed for ourselves, and how the past is always in danger of coming and breaking back through into the present.