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Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (O'Farrell)

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
Maggie O'Farrell, 2007
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
256 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780156033671

Summary
In the middle of tending to the everyday business at her vintage clothing shop and sidestepping her married boyfriend's attempts at commitment, Iris Lockhart receives a stunning phone call: Her great-aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, is being released from Cauldstone Hospital—where she has been locked away for over sixty years.

Iris’s grandmother Kitty always claimed to be an only child. But Esme’s papers prove she is Kitty’s sister, and Iris can see the shadow of her dead father in Esme’s face. Esme has been labeled harmless—sane enough to coexist with the rest of the world. But Esme’s still basically a stranger, a family member never mentioned by the family, and one who is sure to bring life-altering secrets with her when she leaves the ward. If Iris takes her in, what dangerous truths might she inherit?

Maggie O’Farrell’s intricate tale of family secrets, lost lives, and the freedom brought by truth will haunt readers long past its final page. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—1972
Where—Coleraine, Northern Ireland, UK
Raised—Wales and Scotland, UK
Education—Cambridge University
Awards—Costa Award
Currently—lives in London, England


Maggie O'Farrell is a British author of contemporary fiction, who features in Waterstones' 25 Authors for the Future. It is possible to identify several common themes in her novels—the relationship between sisters is one, another is loss and the psychological impact of those losses on the lives of her characters.

The Vanishing Act Esme Lennox was published in 2007. In 2010 O'Farrell won the Costa novel award for The Hand That First Held Mine. Her 2013 novel, Instructions for a Heatwave, also received wide acclaim.

Maggie was born in Ireland and grew up in Wales and Scotland. At the age of eight she missed a year of school due to a viral infection, an event that is echoed in The Distance Between Us. Maggie worked as a journalist, both in Hong Kong and as the Deputy Literary Editor of The Independent on Sunday. She has also taught creative writing.

She is married to the novelist William Sutcliffe, whom she met at Cambridge. They live in Hampstead Heath, London, with their two children. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
O'Farrell is a very visual writer, creating dead-on images like the "arched pink rafters" of a dog's mouth and a chandelier's "points of light kaleidoscoping" above a dance floor. This talent serves her well at the novel's startling and darkly rewarding finale.
Julia Scheeres - New York Times


Maggie O'Farrell's three previous novels have been respectfully reviewed, but her new one radiates the kind of energy that marks a classic. Think Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Charlotte Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" or Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea: stories that illuminate the suffering quietly endured by women in polite society. To that list of insightful feminist tales add The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. At the heart of this fantastic new novel is a mystery you want to solve until you start to suspect the truth, and then you read on in a panic, horrified that you may be right.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


O'Farrell's fourth novel brilliantly illustrates her talent for gradually revealing her characters'' inner lives by jumping back and forth in time and juxtaposing different narrative points of view.... A gripping read with superbly crafted scenes that will blaze in the reader's memory long after the novel is returned to the shelf.
Booklist


Iris Lockhart leads a solitary if spicy life, managing her clothing shop in Edinburgh and dallying with her married lover. But when Iris learns that she has a great-aunt Esme waiting to be released from Cauldstone Hospital, where she has been locked away for 60 years, it is as if a bomb has dropped. The hospital is closing, and someone must collect Esme, who upon inspection seems frail, quiet, and a little quirky but hardly mentally ill. As far as Iris knew, her grandmother Kitty had no siblings; Kitty is still alive but suffering from Alzheimer's. The secret of Esme's existence is only the first of many family secrets revealed in a tale told through shifting viewpoints, among them Kitty's fragmented recollections. A sudden ending to this finely wrought family expose may leave some readers in the lurch, but the psychological suspense along the way should satisfy those looking for both strong plot and characterization. Recommended for literary fiction collections
Keddy Ann Outlaw - Library Journal


When the willfully unattached Iris Lockhart receives a call about a great aunt she never met, her loner lifestyle gets woven into a much larger family drama. Iris may harbor a secret forbidden passion, but in her real-life affairs she prefers a detached approach. Therefore, when a call comes from the soon-to-close Cauldstone Hospital, asking what she would like to do with an elderly relative she didn't know existed, she is faced with more intimacy than she's comfortable with. Her great-aunt Esme, mistakenly called "Euphemia" by the staff, has been hospitalized for more than 60 years for various vague psychiatric disorders, at one point it seems for simply not wanting her hair to be cut. After Iris tries to place her, and recoils from the horrors of the recommended halfway house, she takes her into her own flat, carved out of the Scottish family's original grand home, on a trial basis. Over the course of one long weekend, that trial reveals truths about why Esme was hospitalized and why Iris never heard of her, and also delves into Iris's fear of intimacy as her married lover, Luke, teeters on the edge of leaving his wife. Relying on a complex structure that recalls O'Farrell's earlier work, most of the book's present action is focused on Iris's day-to-day functioning. But this contemporary action is merely the finale of a drama that's been going on since Esme's youth in India. That story unfolds primarily through a series of inner monologues. Esme enjoys rediscovering some memories but avoids others, while her sister Kitty, now institutionalized with Alzheimer's, runs through old mistakes and excuses that still haunt her in her dementia. At times, these competing voices, each with a different take on exactly what happened, can be confusing, but by the novel's surprising ending, each has become clear. Despite occasional opacity, this slow-building, impressionistic work amply rewards dedicated readers with a moving human drama.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. Some of the earliest scenes Esme shares with the reader are those from her childhood in India. What do they reveal about Esme, her family, and their place in time and society?

2. Alex and Luke are both married men in love with Iris. Do you think Iris really loves either one of them? Why or why not?

3. O'Farrell's novel is steeped in secrets. As the story of Esme and Kitty unfolds simultaneously with the story of Iris and Alex, O'Farrell offers clues about the true nature of these relationships. How do these two stories relate to each other? How does it affect your feelings about the characters?

4. Why do you think Esme was sent to Cauldstone, and never released to go home? Do you think she is mentally unbalanced? Give examples from the book to support your opinion.

5. Esme is both taken aback and fascinated by many things that Iris shows and tells her. What does Esme find so remarkable about Iris? How are Iris and Esme similar? How are they different?

6. As Iris discovers more about Cauldstone, she discovers some of the more outrageous reasons that women were sent to "mad houses" like it. According to the novel's descriptions of that time period, what do you think drove this trend? Do you think changes have occurred in our view and treatment of women who don't "behave"? Why or why not?

7. O'Farrell creates distinct voices for the three main characters and shifts between their points of view to tell the story. Why do you think the author made this choice? What do the characteristics of these different voices reveal about Iris, Esme, and Kitty? How does this technique affect your reading experience?

8. How will the revelation of Esme and Kitty's secret change Iris's life? Do you think it will alter her relationships with Luke and Alex?

9. What do you make of the ending? What do you imagine will happen to these characters after the last page is turned? Has the author satisfied your interest in these characters?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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