Happy families, Tolstoy reminds us in the opening lines of Anna Karenina, are all basically the same, but each unhappy family is unique. Tolstoy didn’t need to add: they’re more interesting, too. After all, that’s the presumption that Anna Karenina is based upon.
Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave reflects this same idea. A big-hearted sotry, it treats the foibles and shortcomings of each of its characters with compassion and something very much like love. The fact that these same characters are often unable to treat each other with the same grace is just a reflection of the way many of us struggle through life.
The story concerns the Riordan family: mother Gretta and father Robert, transplanted Irish living in London, retired now after having raised three children to adulthood. Responsible but dowdy Michael Francis is struggling with a marriage turning stale; eager-to-please Monica has left her husband and is now living with a successful but not entirely pleasant new partner; and rebellious Aoife has left the country altogether to live a bohemian life in New York. The family would appear as innocuous as any other were it not for an act as unexpected as it is traumatic.
That act is the disappearance of the patron, Robert, for reasons unexplained and mysterious to everyone else. This happens within the first five pages of the book. Apparently he simply walks away from the house one morning while running a typical errand that he never returns from. This act, simple enough to summarize, sends understandably seismic shock waves through the family.
The balance of the novel concerns the nature of those shock waves, unearthing as they do tensions between Aoife and Monica, Michael Francis and his wife Claire, Monica and her lover, Aoife and Gretta, and so forth. Virtually every relationship among these many characters is explored to a greater or lesser degree, and while some of them are uncomplicated and kind, the vast majority have further complicating layers, as is inevitable when a group of people live in close proximity for many years. By the novel’s conclusion, any number of revelations have erupted to further strain, or redeem, these interactions.
O’Farrell handles all these disparate relationships with an assured hand. She spends each of the opening chapters focusing on a particular sibling, so the reader has the impression at first that one character is the most important, but quickly realizes that everyone is going to get equal time. In a lesser writer’s hands, this approach might result in a confusing muddle, but this story is anything but confusing. O’Farrell is deft at delineating character, to the extent that by the end of the novel, the reader feels on intimate terms with everyone involved.
That said, each reader is apt to have a favorite character, and for me, that’s Aoife, no contest. Her story is especially compelling, concerning as it does a person struggling with a very particular disability. I found her storyline the most powerful, and the permutations of her fight to keep her disability from affecting her to be especially moving. By the end of the book, each of the siblings has made some gesture toward resolving a particular issue that has been plaguing him/her; these gestures are all believable, never overstated, but Aoife’s is particularly well handled, both unexpected and entirely believable.
O’Farrell’s writing style is crisp and no-nonsense, a brisk third person that hews closely to the viewpoint of the character at hand. “It seemed to Monica that one day Aoife was a child, with dragging shoelaces and plaits that undid themselves, and the next, she was a woman with draped clothes and numerous necklaces, standing beside Monica’s hospital bed, not listening when she’d said: Aoife, don’t look.”
Early on, in Michael Francis’s chapter, we are introduced to his essential struggle: “What he finds hardest about family life is that, just when you think you have a handle on what’s going on, everything changes.” As for Aoife, “She got on with the small acts of life. She continued to ensure that—in the phrase she always used inside her own head—she got away with it. No one found her out.” These three examples of O’Farrell’s writing should suggest not only efficiency, but also an ability to pack an abundance of mystery and potential into every situation.
Instructions for a Heatwave is a solid book to immerse oneself in for a time, a novel that reminds us of the unique ability of psychologically-realistic fiction to inhabit another person’s consciousness. It might sound a little grand to wax lyrical about “the power of the novel” and all that, but you know, there is such a thing, and this book taps into it. The narrative landscape here isn’t flashy; it eschews vampires, zombies, car chases, ancient relics, historical mysteries and all the other detritus of the best-seller list. Thank God. Its concerns are internal rather than external. Despite all that, or more likely because of it, this is a novel well worth seeking out.