Synopses & Reviews
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.
“Smart and provocative....O’Farrell has made her mark by combining the elements of good old-fashioned drama with a modern lightness of touch in language and a deft freedom in moving her narratives forward through juxtaposition rather than linear plotting....Over and over, she tries to work out who people really are, how ordinary lives can conceal extraordinary stories.” The New York Times Book Review
“Searing....Astonishing....Perhaps a perfect book....Full of unforgettable players....Instructions for a Heatwave is never dull, never unconvincing, proceeding at a stately and crisp speed through a fully rendered world, grappling at all times and in an original way with the fascinating problems of our time, rushing head-long—and yet staggering almost drunkenly when necessary — towards a stirring and wondrous conclusion.” Los Angeles Review of Books
“Maggie O’Farrell has written my favorite kind of novel: big-hearted, psychologically complex, and utterly gripping from page one. Her spare and subtle prose yields a narrative of extraordinary power. Instructions for a Heatwave is a quiet masterpiece, one I’ll be recommending for years to come.” Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette
“Instructions for a Heatwave is a thoroughly engrossing and suspenseful novel about an Irish family and its disparate members coming together one unbearably hot summer. Their mission is to find a father who has wandered off. Their unspoken mission is to rediscover and forgive each other for a lifetime of slights and betrayals, real and imagined. O’Farrell, in this beautifully-written tale, gets the psychological nuances just right.” Anita Shreve
“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
“A beautiful book....Spellbinding.” NPR
“O’Farrell has done it again....There is a deliciousness to this novel, a warmth and readability that render it unputdownable and will surely make it a hit.” The Guardian (London)
London, 1976. In the thick of a record-breaking heatwave, Gretta Riordan’s newly-retired husband has cleaned out his bank account and vanished. Now, for the first time in years, Gretta calls her children home : Michael Francis, a history teacher whose marriage is failing; Monica, whose blighted past that has driven a wedge between her and her younger sister; and Aoife, the youngest, whose new life in Manhattan is elaborately arranged to conceal a devastating secret.
In a story that stretches from the Upper West Side to a village on the coast of Ireland, Maggie O’Farrell explores the mysteries that inhere within families, and reveals the fault lines over which we build our lives. Instructions for a Heatwave weaves an unforgettable narrative of a family falling apart and coming together with hard-won, life-changing truths about who they really are.
About the Author
Maggie O’Farrell is the author of After You’d Gone, winner of a Betty Trask Award; My Lover’s Lover; The Distance Between Us, winner of a Somerset Maugham Award; The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox; The Hand That First Held Mine, winner of a Costa Novel Award; and Instructions for a Heatwave, shortlisted for the Costa Award.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, author biography, discussion questions, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Instructions for a Heatwave
, the mysterious and riveting new novel by Maggie O’Farrell.
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?