Instructions for a Heatwave (O'Farrell)

Instructions for a Heatwave
Maggie O'Farrell, 2013
Knopf Doubleday
304 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385349406



Summary
Sophisticated, intelligent, impossible to put down, Maggie O’Farrell’s beguiling novels—After You’d Gone, winner of a Betty Trask Award; The Distance Between Us, winner of a Somerset Maugham Award; The Hand That First Held Mine, winner of the Costa Novel Award; and her unforgettable bestseller The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox—blend richly textured psychological drama with page-turning suspense. Instructions for a Heatwave finds her at the top of her game, with a novel about a family crisis set during the legendary British heatwave of 1976.

Gretta Riordan wakes on a stultifying July morning to find that her husband of forty years has gone to get the paper and vanished, cleaning out his bank account along the way. Gretta’s three grown children converge on their parents’ home for the first time in years: Michael Francis, a history teacher whose marriage is failing; Monica, with two stepdaughters who despise her and a blighted past that has driven away the younger sister she once adored; and Aoife, the youngest, now living in Manhattan, a smart, immensely resourceful young woman who has arranged her entire life to conceal a devastating secret.

Maggie O’Farrell writes with exceptional grace and sensitivity about marriage, about the mysteries that inhere within families, and the fault lines over which we build our lives—the secrets we hide from the people who know and love us best. In a novel that stretches from the heart of London to New York City’s Upper West Side to a remote village on the coast of Ireland, O’Farrell paints a bracing portrait of a family falling apart and coming together with hard-won, life-changing truths about who they really are. (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] has made her mark by combining the elements of good old-­fashioned drama—love affairs in the shadows, the reappearance of long-lost relatives, hidden wives—with a modern lightness of touch in language and a deft freedom in moving her narratives forward through juxtaposition rather than linear plotting. For the reader, this can feel like having one’s cake and eating it too. O’Farrell’s novels appeal to a broad audience, but they’re also smart and provocative. Over and over, they try to work out who people really are, how ordinary lives can conceal extraordinary stories.
Stacey D'Erasmo - New York Times Book Review


Riveting.... Finely drawn... Once again, O’Farrell demonstrates her mastery at depicting strained relationships, skewed family loyalties, and the just reachable light at the end of the tunnel.
Minneapolis Star Tribune


Acutely observed…revelatory, redemptive, and moving…There is a deliciousness to this novel, a warmth and readability that render it unputdownable and will surely make it a hit. O’Farrell has done it again.
Joanna Briscoe - Guardian (UK)
 

An accomplished and addictive story told with real humanity, warmth, and infectious love for the characters. Highly recommended,
Viv Groskop - Observer (UK)
 

A literary event…evocative, articulate, and joyously readable…O’Farrell’s talent for drawing intriguing but relatable characters is eclipsed only by a rare gift for description that is almost photographic in its imagery…An author at the top of her game.
Charlotte Heathcote - Sunday Express (UK)
 

Humorous, humane, and perceptive…O’Farrell depicts relationships with piercing acuity in haunting, intense prose…a deliciously insightful writer…Her sharp but humane eye dissects every form of human interaction.
Leyla Sanai - Independent on Sunday (UK)
 

Elegant, lyrical, and subtle…O’Farell’s a compassionate writer, showing us every member of the family from a variety of viewpoints, ensuring that we understand and feel for every one of them even as they drive each other mad…The Riordans will stay in your mind long after you finish reading this book. They’re funny, infuriating, and impossible not to love. They feel like family.
Anna Carey - Irish Times (UK)
 

Thoroughly absorbing and beautifully written…A novel about what we say and what other people hear; about families; what we don’t tell each other and what we do; the compromises and accommodations we make and what happens when we build our lives around half-truths.
Victoria Moore -  Daily Mail (UK)
 
 
A ripping yarn…A brilliant domestic drama that teeters on the edge of being a thriller; it’ll hook you in at the start and keep you dangling.
Katie Law - Evening Standard (UK)
 

O’Farrell is adept at creating pace out of the intricacies of family relations. She keeps the gas up on the Bunsen burner throughout...I felt that I gobbled this book.
Vicky Allan - Herald (UK)


A rich, barbed interplay among siblings, who gibe, snap, and snipe as they go through their father's things, slowly teasing out one another's long-buried secrets—and a few of Gretta’s and Robert’s, too.
Entertainment Weekly


When Gretta Riordan's husband, Robert, disappears during the 1976 London heatwave, her three grown children return home for the first time in years.... [T]he siblings and their mother are forced to confront old resentments which bubble to the surface. O'Farrell skillfully navigates between past and present.... An absorbing read from start to finish, through O'Farrell's vibrant prose, each character comes alive as more is revealed and the novel unfolds.
Publishers Weekly


During an infamous heat wave in 1976 London, Robert Riordan fails to return after heading out to buy a newspaper, and wife Gretta calls in her grown children for help. Multi-award-winning O'Farrell should be a household name here.
Library Journal


A beautiful portrait of family life. The story really blossoms in the second half . . . where the family’s secrets and private feuds come raging forth so that the true healing can begin.
Booklist


An Irish family saga, replete with secrets, rivalries, and misbehavior becomes a compelling and entertaining story in Maggie O’Farrell’s hands.... O’Farrell takes readers on journeys interior and exterior—recounted in flawless prose that will have you reading while strap-hanging, standing in line, or waiting at a stop light.
Shelf Awareness


A sometimes-brooding but always sympathetic novel, by prize-winning British writer O'Farrell, of a family's struggles to overlook the many reasons why they should avoid each other's glances and phone calls.... [N]o one's quite normal, which is exactly as it is with every family on Earth.... O'Farrell paints a knowing, affectionate, sometimes exasperated portrait of these beleaguered people, who are bound by love, if a sometimes-wary love, but torn apart by misunderstanding, just like all the rest of us. A skillfully written novel of manners, with quiet domestic drama spiced with fine comic moments. The payoff is priceless, too.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. The weather referenced in the novel’s title refers to the setting but also takes on symbolic or metaphorical significance. O’Farrell writes that “strange weather brings out strange behavior.... [People] start behaving...not so much out of character but deep within it” (p. 103). What does she mean by this? Where do we see examples of this among the characters? How does the heat enhance or mirror the psychological drama of the story? 

2. Consider the various examples of siblings in the story. What are their relationships like? Are there many similarities among their relationships? Are the siblings very alike as characters? What problems or tensions are evident among them, and what causes this? 

3.  In the opening scenes of the book, O’Farrell creates a sense of the routine and the mundane through a description of Gretta’s and Robert’s daily habits. It creates a sense of domesticity, but how does this sense of the routine also heighten the feeling of alarm over Robert’s disappearance and affect our reaction to the revelations at the story’s end? 

4. When we are introduced to Michael Francis, we find him thinking that “[h]e is, for a moment, exactly the person he is meant to be..... There is no difference...between the way the world might see him and the person he privately knows himself to be” (p. 13). What does the author mean by this? Where do we find discrepancies in the book between who a character really is and who others see the character to be? What causes this dissonance?  

5. Examine the various representations of family and family structures in the book. Are they very similar? What does this tell us about marriage and family? About the characters? Most of the characters are, or have been, married. What were their reasons for marrying? How is marriage represented in the story? Are these unions mostly successful? What makes them successful or not? 

6. Why is Michael Francis so upset by his wife’s haircut and enrollment in history classes? 

7. Pregnancy and birth are recurring subjects in the book; the loss that can be associated with them is also explored. Evaluate the scenes that portray pregnancy and birth: Gretta’s births, Monica’s loss, Michael Francis’s children, and Aoife’s pregnancy. What message does the novel seem to present about birth?

8.  Whose fault is it that Monica’s secret was found out? How did Monica respond to the secret being revealed to her husband? What is your reaction?

9.  The characters reflect throughout the book on various events from their childhoods. What were some of the more memorable events, or events that had the greatest impact on them? What do these revelations seem to indicate about the impact of the past and its relationship to the present? 

10. Consider the various conflicts in the novel. There is the problem of Robert’s disappearance, but other conflicts also begin to surface. Are these conflicts resolved? If so, how? How does the larger conflict unite or divide the characters? How does each character respond to conflict?  

11.  Evaluate the structure of the book. How does it accommodate point of view? Does any single standpoint dominate the story? How does this affect our response to the characters and our interpretation of the story? How would our understanding of the story have been different if it was told in only one point of view? 

12. Evaluate the style of the book. Is O’Farrell’s language simple or difficult or complex? What about the sentence structures? How does her style of writing work to create a sense of portraiture, albeit with words?  

13.  Analyze O’Farrell’s use of flashbacks as a literary device. The characters are constantly recalling moments and events from the past. This allows us to know the unknowable. What insight does it give us into the characters? What does we learn about subjects such as memory, history, and truth?

14.  Gretta tries to “keep Ireland alive” (p. 6) through trips to Ireland, Mass and communion, her cooking, and other customs. How do her children respond to her efforts? How does the book create a portrait of the complexities of tradition versus modernity? The characters are all living in different places–different countries, even. What might this say about contemporary living and the modern family? 

15.  Consider the sense of time in the book. The story takes place over only a few days, yet we get a sense of the entire history of each character from childhood to the present day. How does O’Farrell accomplish this? 

16. Evaluate disappearance and estrangement as themes of the novel. While Mr. Riordan’s disappearance takes center stage, instances of disappearance and escape are not limited to his character. What other examples do we find in the novel? What causes these disappearances? What causes the divisions between the characters that grow into estrangement? How could this be helped?

17.  What secrets do the characters keep from one another? Is one more surprising than another? If so, why? How do the characters react to the revelation of one another’s secrets? 

18.  Is Aoife’s disability identified? Why or why not? How does her disability affect how other characters perceive her? How does it affect her life? Does anyone try to help? How does it influence readers’ perception of her character?

19.  What does the novel tell us about tragedy and the ways in which we face tragedies? Does each character respond in the same way? Does the way that the characters deal with tragedy change throughout the story?

20. How does this novel compare to O’Farrell’s other works? What are some of the recurring themes? Is their treatment similar? Are there recurring character types or plotlines?
(Questions by the publisher.)

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