Synopses & Reviews
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
"'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.)"
"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
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.
This haunting, multi-generational tale of the horrors that have been done to women under the guise of mental health is the creepy Victorian tale of two elderly sisters who reveal more than a few family secrets after a lifetime of forced seclusion.
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.
About the Author
MAGGIE O'FARRELL is the author of four previous novels, including the acclaimed The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which was a B&N Recommends Pick, and After Youd Gone. Born in Northern Ireland in 1972, O'Farrell grew up in Wales and Scotland. She has two children.
Q: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
is based on real-life events that took place a few years ago in Britain when places like Cauldstone Hospital were shut down and many patients who had been institutionalized for years, like Esme, were released. What about this episode in history, particularly women's history, appealed to you as a writer?
A: The practice of disposing of "difficult" women by sending them to psychiatric institutions is a shocking chapter in Britain's history. Until the 1950s it was possible for a man to commit his wife or daughter to an asylum with just a signature from a GP. Anything that makes you angry is good fuel for a writer. There was also my fascination with uncovering many of these women's stories. Writers love dark secrets. Throughout the research and the writing of the book, I was haunted by the idea of this other life I could have led, the idea that this could have happened to me, to many of us, had we been born into a different time, into a different family.
Q: It's upsetting to think that many women were removed from society for reasons such as disobedience to their parents or husbands. What are some of the more shocking explanations that families used to justify locking these women away?
A: I read about a woman who was committed to an asylum for "taking long walks." Another was put away because she kept refusing offers of marriage. Someone else didn't want her long hair cut off; another girl stole two shillings. Countless others were put away for accidental pregnancies. The one that struck me most was the girl who was diagnosed as insane because she was "caught dancing before a mirror, dressed in her mother's clothes."
Q. Let's talk about Esme's niece Iris. She's educated and runs her own vintage clothing shop but her love life is a disaster. She's involved with two married men, one of whom is her stepbrother. Why does she choose to be involved in these complex relationships?
A: I don't think there's an element of choice. Who among us can choose the person they love? I think if Iris could choose not to love her stepbrother, Alex, she would; she has spent much of her adult life fighting it. Luke, her married lover, is part of that fight. She needs Luke to occupy that space in her life, to stop Alex from filling it. I see Iris as a genetic echo of Esme. I've always been interested in the idea of what happens to a certain type of woman unconventional, uncompromising at different times in history. If Iris had been born sixty years earlier, she wouldn't have had her education, her independence, or her freedom she would have ended up like Esme.
Q: Esme was very close to her sister when they were young but, ultimately, Kitty betrays her. Now that Kitty is older and has time to think about her actions, does she really regret what she has done?
A: Kitty is a complicated character because she's all appearance. She likes to maintain the facade that her life is all decency and respectability and normalcy, whereas the truth is something quite different. This, of course, becomes apparent in her later life, when she succumbs to Alzheimer's and her facade begins to crack. I think she is torn about what she's done: She regrets it but at the same time feels justified.
Q: As in After You'd Gone, this book is written from multiple perspectives and locations, and alternates between the past and the present. How does this style help you tell your stories?
A: I've always been taken with the idea that there can be no absolute truth in a situation that involves more than one person. Life isn't ordered and neat and split into chapters, and I like novels to reflect that. I don't know if I could ever write a novel from one person's perspective: I'm too interested in the schisms between what people think of themselves and what others think of them. I also don't see experience as chronological. I'm fascinated by the way certain elements and emotions can lie dormant for years and then something will trigger them to reemerge. I like the richness of writing from multiple perspectives and different timeframes: It mirrors the way I see life.
Q: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is a gripping read from page one. When you're working on a book, do you know how it will end or does that come to you as the story takes shape?
A: I don't always know and I like that. One of the things I enjoy most about writing is when it starts to diverge from what you'd planned. I think it's only when the writing starts to take on a life of its own, to gather its own momentum, that you know it's working. I love it when a story or a person you're writing about suddenly surprises you. I have a quote by Picasso beside my desk: "If you know exactly what you are going to do, what is the point of doing it?" I couldn’t imagine anything worse than planning every last detail of a book and then spending the next two or three years working through that plan. I start sometimes at the beginning, sometimes in the middle often without any idea how it will end. And if I do begin with an image for the ending in mind, usually by the time I get to the end, it's all changed. Having said that, I always knew how Esme would end there was only one possible outcome.
Q: You've written four critically acclaimed novels, three of which have been published in the U.S. What's next for you?
A: I'm very superstitious about discussing things I haven't yet finished. I can say that I am writing a novel. And that it's set in 1950s London. And it's about two women whose lives appear unconnected. But I can't say any more than that. Sorry.
Copyright © 2007 Harcourt
Questions written by Roseleigh Navarre