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Once again, Maggie O'Farrell creates a set of well-developed characters and turns her focus to complex family dynamics. The year is 1976, and England is in the midst of a heatwave. While his wife Gretta follows her usual morning bread baking routine, recent retiree Robert Riordan goes for his morning walk--and doesn't return. As most of us would do in a time of crisis, Gretta calls the family together for support. There's her favorite, Monica, a childless woman married to a second husband whose daughters despise her; Michael Francis, a high school history teacher who hates his job and whose ideal family may not be so ideal behind closed doors; and Aiofe, the so-called black sheep, who never seemed to get anything right and had moved to New York eight years earlier to escape the constant criticism and disappointments.
As they reunite to decide how to proceed in finding Robert, repressed emotions, individual frailties, and long-held secrets come to the surface. O'Farrell does a masterful job of moving from one perspective to another and between past and present, showing us the truth within each character and the source of their misperceptions about one another. Towards the end, we learn that the children aren't the only ones living lives built of facades: Gretta and Robert have their own buried secrets.
In the end, many threads are left to be untangled. The lack of a neatly tied-up conclusion might be considered a flaw, but it also highlights the fact that the relationships among the Riordans and her characters' psyches are O'Farrell's intended focus, more so than the story of a missing person. The writing here is quite fine; not only are the descriptions vivid and the dialogue believable, but the author has a gift for subtly evoking a reader's empathy even for characters who may not be on their best behavior. Instructions for a Heatwave may not be the best Maggie O'Farrell novel I've read, but it comes pretty close.
John Lee is one of my all-time favorite narrators, and he gets to use his wonderful brogue in this one--a delight to listen to!
9 of 9 people found this review helpful
O'Farrell writes sympathetic characters, and that's an important issue for me. I have to be able to identify with at least one in any book. Here, each one - even the unlikable, has some redeeming characteristic. A good depiction of adult family relationships just as each is reaching a crisis point in his or her life. There was only one thing I had trouble believing: One sister is illiterate. By now she's figured out how to hide it. But is it really possible that she made it all the way through her school years without anyone ever suspecting she might have a learning disability - or discovering that she never learned to read?
1 of 1 people found this review helpful