Set during the British heat wave of 1976, Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel, ‘Instructions for a Heatwave,’ is a psychological drama of the first order.
On Thursday, 15 July 1976, patriarch Robert Riordan says good-bye to his wife Gretta and sets out for his morning paper and never returns. For Gretta, his “absence is beyond understanding. She is so used to him being here, being around, that she can’t quite accept he has disappeared.”
It is Robert’s vanishing act that impels his three adult children — Michael Francis, Monica, and Aoife –to all return home at the same time, for the first time in years. For Gretta:
“The very bricks, mortar and plaster of this house are saturated with the lives of her three children. She cannot believe they have gone. And that they are back.”
The Riordans – like everyone – have secrets. And it is their secrets that have come to define – and complicate — their lives. Michael Francis, is a reluctant history teacher with two young children and a troubled marriage. Twice-married Monica is miserable. She has two hostile stepdaughters and a secret that has severed her once loving relationship with Aoife. Smart, quirky Aoife returns home from Manhattan, where she has concealed the fact that she is functionally illiterate.
Michael Francis, who begins his summer break on the day his father disappears, would give anything to return his family’s life to what it was before his own guilty secret reconfigured his marriage:
What he finds hardest about family life is that, just when you think you have a handle on what’s going on, everything changes.
For his Irish twin sister Monica, their father’s disappearance was forever linked with the death of the cat she loathes but her stepdaughters dote on. It is the catalyst that forces her to confront the mostly unpleasant realities of her marriage – and her mistaken assumptions about the role Aoife played in the dissolution of her first marriage.
Aoife is burdened by her secret:
She cannot read. This is her own private truth. Because of it, she must lead a double life: the fact of it saturates every molecule of her being, defines her to herself, always and forever, but nobody else knows. Not her friends, not her colleagues, not her family – certainly not her family. She has kept it from all of them, felt herself brimming with the secret of it her whole life.
It’s the epic heatwave – and ensuing drought — that engulfed Britain in 1976 that fuels the plot:
Strange weather brings out strange behavior. As a Bunsen burner applied to a crucible will bring about an exchange of electrons, the division of some compounds and the unification of others, so a heatwave will act upon people. It lays them bare, it wears down their guard. They start behaving not unusually but unguardedly. They act not so much out of character but deep within it.
The siblings are united in their thirst for discovering the whereabouts of their father – and the uncovering of decades-old secrets that led to his sudden disappearance. There is, to O’Farrell, something deeply inviolable about family:
There is a kind of invisible osmosis that occurs between people who have shared a room. If you sleep near someone, night in, night out, breathing each other’s air, it is as if your dreams, your unconscious lives become entangled, the circuits of your minds running close to each other, exchanging information without speech.
Gretta, is at a loss without Robert. “They have been together for so many years that they are no longer like two people but one strange four-legged creature.” Yet it is Gretta who, in the end, has been carrying a secret that both explains and shocks.
“Instructions for a Heatwave” is a prescription for healing – and forgiving — the rifts and dysfunctions of complicated family life. Brimming with wit, wisdom and wonderful writing, it deserves a wide readership.
“Instructions for a Heatwave” is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.