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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennoxby Maggie O'Farrell
Synopses & Reviews
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 more than sixty-one 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 she'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?
A gothic, intricate tale of family secrets, lost lives, and the freedom brought by truth, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox will haunt you long past its final page.
"'O'Farrell (After You'd Gone) delivers an intricate, eloquent novel of family malice, longings and betrayal. Slim, stylish Iris Lockhart runs a dress shop in contemporary Edinburgh when she's not flirting with her stepbrother Alex or rendezvousing with her married attorney lover, Luke. Esme Lennox, meanwhile, is ready to be discharged from the soon-to-be-closed psychiatric hospital where she's been a patient (read: virtual prisoner) for 61 years. Iris becomes aware of Esme's existence when she's informed, to her disbelief, that she has been granted power of attorney over Esme by Kitty Lockhart, Iris's Alzheimer's-afflicted grandmother. It turns out Kitty and Esme are sisters, but Kitty kept quiet about Esme after she was hospitalized at age 16. Layer upon layer of Lockhart family secrets are laid bare — the truth behind Esme's institutionalization, why her existence was kept a secret, and a twist involving Iris's parents — as Iris mulls over what to do with her new charge, and Esme and Kitty reconnect. O'Farrell maintains a high level of tension throughout, and the conclusion is devastating.' Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)"
"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' '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... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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. The structure of the novel is a challenge, more like a dare, the kind of purposefully scrambled puzzle that makes you wonder if it's all just too much work to figure out who's talking and when this happened and what that means. But forge on: O'Farrell isn't merely showing off; she's forcing us to participate in a family's ghastly conspiracy of forgetting. In the present day, we meet Iris Lockhart, a Scottish shop owner who specializes in vintage clothing. She's entangled in an unsatisfying affair with a married man and a mostly repressed relationship with her stepbrother. The last thing she has time for is a cryptic letter, then a phone call from a nearby mental hospital. It seems budget cuts have encouraged the staff to re-evaluate all their patients, and some old woman named Euphemia Lennox is being released after 60 years. 'I have no idea who you people are or what you want,' Iris tells them, 'but I've never heard of Euphemia Lennox.' A case worker patiently explains: 'It's not unusual for patients of ours to ... shall we say, fall out of sight.' Euphemia — Esme — is her great-aunt, a woman no one in her family has ever mentioned. Friends warn her not to get involved, but then Iris meets her in the fetid hospital: She had been 'expecting someone frail or infirm, a tiny geriatric, a witch from a fairy tale. But this woman is tall, with an angular face and searching eyes. She has an air of slight hauteur, the expression arch, the brows raised. Although she must be in her seventies, there is something incongruously childlike about her. ... Without warning, Euphemia's hand shoots out and seizes her wrist. Iris cannot help herself: she jumps back, turning to look for the nurse, the social worker. Immediately Euphemia lets go. "Don't worry," she says, with an odd smile. "I don't bite."' That mixture of sympathy, wit and menace is only part of what makes the novel so irresistible. Seeing Esme's desperation, Iris decides to help her find somewhere to live. The interaction between this thoroughly modern young woman and her great-aunt, who's just stepped from some ghastly Brigadoon, is surprisingly poignant. Released into the modern world after more than half a century, Esme has 'a certain wide-eyed quality, her lack of inhibition, perhaps — that marks her out from other people. ... She is doing everything, Iris notices, with an odd kind of reverence. How mad is she?' They're both terrified the first night: Iris expects to be stabbed by the 'mad old woman,' while Esme worries she'll be sent back to that hellhole. Modern cars, planes and radios are marvels to her, but the wind, the sea, the freedom to walk, 'her first unsupervised bath for over sixty years,' these are the pleasures Esme soaks up, and her wonder makes Iris re-examine everything around her. But beneath this poignant story, O'Farrell has written a searing indictment of the way psychiatry was used to control women and girls who refused to conform. Searching for an explanation of her aunt's incarceration in the 1940s, Iris finds reports in the hospital's archives that regard psychotic and perfectly ordinary behavior with equal suspicion. The medical standards sound as crazy as any of the 'symptoms' being detailed: 'Iris reads of refusals to speak, of unironed clothes, of arguments with neighbors, of hysteria, of unwashed dishes and unswept floors, of never wanting marital relations or wanting them too much or not enough or not in the right way or seeking them elsewhere. Of husbands at the ends of their tethers, of parents unable to understand the women their daughters have become, or fathers who insist, over and over again, that she used to be such a lovely little thing.' And finally she finds Esme's admission report from when she was 16 years old. It contains these weirdly innocuous details: 'Insists on keeping her hair long. ... Parents report finding her dancing before a mirror, dressed in her mother's clothes.' The solution to this puzzle comes slowly in two vastly different and much older stories that O'Farrell weaves through the description of Iris' nervous weekend with her long-lost aunt. It's a challenge, but you'll eventually learn to recognize these disparate voices — and come to see the brilliance of scrambling them like this. In one, an omniscient narrator tells brief, Gothic anecdotes about Esme's adolescence. She was the precocious daughter of a wealthy Scottish family that had lived in India. We see her parents mostly on the periphery: They are deeply perturbed by her irreverence, her bookishness, her refusal to participate appropriately in the social customs of their rank. 'The Oddbod, they called her,' but she doesn't care. Esme cannot abide the 'nervous men with over-combed hair, scrubbed hands and pressed shirts' who come for tea with her and her sister. 'The whole thing made Esme want to burst into honesty,' which, as O'Farrell suggests, is the last thing refined society can tolerate. Then there is a third narrator, the strange, pained, truly mad voice of Esme's sister, Kitty, whose mind is ravaged by Alzheimer's. She lives in a posh rest home just a few miles from the prison-like hospital where Esme spent all those unspeakable decades. Torn by crosscurrents of guilt and self-justification, Kitty's narrative starts and stops in mid-sentences. 'But I never meant for her to — ' These shards of confession don't make any sense at first, but slowly a horrible image of what happened in their house begins to develop. It's a breathtaking, heartbreaking creation. Even a sympathetic reader, though, might wonder if, like Esme's release, this novel is 60 years too late. After all, the feminist writer of today confronts a challenge that Gilman, Rhys, Chopin, or even Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood never had to face: the threat of easy acceptance. Nowadays, we already understand how Bertha ended up in Rochester's attic; we expect Edna to take that final, liberating swim; we know who's trapped behind the yellow wallpaper. Is there really anything that would shock us about the abuse of psychiatry and medicine in the service of chauvinism and class? The modern-day frame of this novel provides an insightful and troubling response to that objection. Of course, budget cuts and civil rights lawyers have largely dismantled the kinds of places that held people like Esme, but young women still find themselves straitjacketed by subtler forms of restraint. After all, Iris looks so free, so sexually liberated, but she's trapped, too, incapable of acting on her desires for fear of condemnation and disapproval. In O'Farrell's fierce, engrossing novel, the crimes of the past rear up with surprising vengeance. Esme Lennox won't vanish again anytime soon. Ron Charles is a senior editor at Book World. Send e-mail to charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is a strange, sad, and a marvelously well-written novel. I would like to think that families only behave this way in books, but unfortunately betrayal, jealousy, and secrets are all too common in real life. It was a terrific book, I will be thinking about it for a long time." Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife
"A moving human drama." Kirkus Reviews
"O'Farrell is a very visual writer, creating dead-on images." New York Times
"A gripping read with superbly crafted scenes that will blaze in the readers memory long after the novel is returned to the shelf." Booklist
"A sudden ending to this finely wrought family exposé may leave some readers in the lurch, but the psychological suspense along the way should satisfy those looking for both strong plot and characterization." Library Journal
Maggie O'Farrell's captivating and critically acclaimed gothic tale of family secrets and the irrepressible freedom that truth brings
Chic and independent, Iris Lockhart is tending to her vintage-clothing shop in Edinburgh (and evading her married boyfriend) when she 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 more than sixty years. Iriss grandmother Kitty always claimed to be an only child. But Esmes papers prove she is Kittys sister, and Iris can see the shadow of her father in Esmes face. Esme has been labeled harmless—sane enough to coexist with the rest of the world—but she's still basically a stranger, a family member hidden away who will surely bring secrets with her when she leaves the ward. Moving expertly among the voices of Iris, Kitty, and Esme herself, Maggie O'Farrell reveals the story of Esme's tragic and haunting absence.
Praise for THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX:
"This haunting and extraordinarily engrossing novel--part gothic mystery, part tangled family drama--reminded me why I love reading in the first place: it's because a well-written book has the power to carry us away to a place we've never been but always suspected was there." — Carolyn Parkhurst, author of THE DOGS OF BABEL
"I found this actually unputdownable, written with charge and energy and a kind of compelling drive, a clarity and a gripping dramatic insidiousness reminiscent of classic writers like Rebecca West and Daphne Du Maurier." --Ali Smith, author of Hotel World and The Accidental
"Prickly, disturbing and delicious, a novel to gulp in a single sitting." — The Observer
"Like Sarah Waters or Douglas Kennedy [OFarrell] displays a gift for storytelling that makes her novels almost ridiculously pleasurable to read." The London Times
"Beneath the cool Edwardian detail of this elegantly written book lie the horrors of a Gothic novel." — The Guardian
"I would like to think that families only behave this way in books, but unfortunately betrayal, jealousy, and secrets are all too common in real life. It was a terrific book, I will be thinking about it for a long time." — Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife
About the Author
Maggie O'Farrell is the author of three previous novels, including the beloved After You'd Gone. Born in Northern Ireland, O'Farrell grew up in Wales and Scotland. She lives in Edinburgh.
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