Cover image for Instructions for a heatwave
Title:
Instructions for a heatwave
Author:
O'Farrell, Maggie, 1972-
Personal Author:
Edition:
First United States edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
Physical Description:
[289] pages ; [25] cm
Summary:
When a recently retired family patriarch clears out his bank account and disappears during a sweltering summer in 1976, his three children converge on their mother's home for the first time in years and track clues to an ancestral village in Ireland, where they uncover illuminating family secrets.
General Note:
Also published by Vintage Books.
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780385349406
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

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. 


Author Notes

Maggie O'Farrell is the author of several novels including After You'd Gone, My Lover's Lover, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Instructions for a Heatwave, and This Must Be the Place. She received a Somerset Maugham Award for The Distance Between Us and the 2010 Costa Novel Award for The Hand That First Held Mine.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

It is July 1976, and London is in the grip of an intense heatwave. All over the city, people are coming unhinged, and the Riordans are no exception. Retired banker Robert has left to buy a newspaper and never returns. His wife, Gretta, calls their three children, who converge on the family homestead for the first time in years. Michael Francis, full of regrets for the decisions he has made, is worried sick that his marriage is over; uptight Monica, trapped in a second marriage with two stepchildren who hate her, is not speaking to the younger sister she practically raised; and Aoife, who has taken herself off to Manhattan but cannot outrun the dyslexia that has made her working life a virtual hell. As the siblings seek out clues to the whereabouts of their father, O'Farrell, in her sixth novel, draws a beautiful portrait of family life. The story really blossoms in the second half, when the Riordans end their search in Ireland, where the family's secrets and private feuds come raging forth so that the true healing can begin.--Wilkinson, Joanne Copyright 2010 Booklist


Publisher's Weekly Review

When Gretta Riordan's husband, Robert, disappears during the 1976 London heatwave, her three grown children return home for the first time in years. All are dealing with personal crises that inform their relationships with each other and are tied back to their family history. The oldest, Michael Francis, is trying to keep his marriage together as his wife yearns for independence, and his two sisters, Monica and Aoife, have been estranged for years over a bitter secret that led Aoife across the ocean to New York, where she has made a life for herself while hiding her illiteracy. Under the stress of searching for their father and enduring the unbearable heat-which causes people to "act not so much out of character but deep within it"-the siblings and their mother are forced to confront old resentments which bubble to the surface. O'Farrell skillfully navigates between past and present, as family secrets are revealed and old grudges are hashed out, without ever losing the narrative's pace. An absorbing read from start to finish, through O'Farrell's vibrant prose, each character comes alive as more is revealed and the novel unfolds. (June) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Library Journal Review

In 1976, a historic heat wave and drought hit Great Britain, with conditions so extreme that a Minister of Drought was appointed. On one blistering day that summer, Robert Riordan gets up and simply walks away from his wife of 40 years. Gretta Riordan calls her three adult children home. O'Farrell's (The Hand That First Held Mine) latest takes place over the span of a week, with reflections cast back over the lifetimes of each of the family members. John Lee is best with the Irish voice of Gretta and good with both the female and male characters. Just as heat blisters paint and reveals layers underneath, so, too, are family fissures and cracks laid open as the search begins for the patriarch and deeply guarded secrets are forced to the surface. Verdict For listeners who enjoy introspective family dramas.-J. Sara Paulk, Wythe-Grayson Regional Lib., Independence, VA (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Highbury, London The heat, the heat. It wakes Gretta just after dawn, propelling her from the bed and down the stairs. It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs. The air in the kitchen is like a solid entity filling the space, pushing Gretta down into the floor, against the side of the table. Only she would choose to bake bread in such weather. Consider her now, yanking open the oven and grimacing in its scorching blast as she pulls out the bread tin. She is in her nightdress, hair still wound onto curlers. She takes two steps backwards and tips the steaming loaf into the sink, the weight of it reminding her, as it always does, of a baby, a newborn, the packed, damp warmth of it. She has made soda bread three times a week for her entire married life. She is not about to let a little thing like a heatwave get in the way of that. Of course, living in London, it is impossible to get buttermilk; she has to make do with a mixture of half milk and half yogurt. A woman at Mass told her it worked and it does, up to a point, but it is never quite the same. At a clacking sound on the lino behind her, she says, "Is that you? Bread's ready." "It's going to be--" he begins, then stops. Gretta waits for a moment before turning around. Robert is standing between the sink and the table, his large hands upturned, as if he's holding a tea tray. He is staring at some-thing. The tarnished chrome of the tap, perhaps, the runnels of the draining board, that rusting enamel pan. Everything around them is so familiar, it's impossible sometimes to tell what your eye has been trained upon, the way a person can no longer hear the individual notes of a known piece of music. "It's going to be a what?" she demands. He doesn't reply. She moves towards him and places a palm on his shoulder. "You all right?" She has, of late, been finding herself reminded of his age, the sudden stoop of his back, the look of mild confusion on his face. "What?" He swings his head around to look at her, as if startled by her touch. "Yes." He nods. "Of course. I was just saying it's going to be another hot one today." He shuffles sideways, just as she'd known he would, towards the thermometer, which clings, by a spit-moistened sucker, to the outside of the window. It is the third month of the drought. For ten days now the heat has passed 90ºF. There has been no rain--not for days, not for weeks, not for months. No clouds pass, slow and stately as ships, over the roofs of these houses. With a metallic click, like that of a hammer tapping a nail, a black spot lands on the window, as if pulled there by magnetic force. Robert, still peering at the thermometer, flinches. The insect has a striated underside, six legs splaying outwards. Another appears, at the other end of the window, then another, then another. "Those buggers are back," he murmurs. Gretta comes to see, jamming on her glasses. Together, they peer at them, transfixed. Swarms of red-backed aphids have, in the past week, been passing over the city. They mass in trees, on car windscreens. They catch in the hair of children coming home from school, they find their way into the mouths of those crazy enough to cycle in this heat, their feet adhere to the sun-creamed limbs of people lying in their back gardens. The aphids fling themselves from the window, their feet detaching at the same moment, as if alerted by some secret signal, and they disappear into the azure sky. Gretta and Robert straighten up, in unison, relieved. "That's them gone," he says. She sees him glance at the clock on the wall--a quarter to seven. At precisely this time, for more than thirty years, he would leave the house. He would take his coat off the peg by the door, pick up his bag, call goodbye to them all, shouting and squawking in the kitchen, and slam the door behind him. He always left at six forty-five, on the proverbial dot, no matter what was happening, whether Michael Francis was refusing to get out of bed, whether Aoife was kicking up a stink about Godknowswhat, whether Monica was trying to take over the cooking of the bacon. Not his department, all that, never was. Six forty-five, and he was out the door, gone. He seems to feel a twitching in his limbs, she's noticed, a kind of vestigial urge to set off, to get going, to be out in the world. Any minute now, she knows, he'll be off to the newsagent's. With a hand on her bad hip, she pushes the chair out from the table with her foot, and Robert says, "I'll just go round the corner and get the paper. "Right you are," she says, without looking up. "See you in a bit." Gretta sits herself down at the table. Robert has arranged everything she needs: a plate, a knife, a bowl with a spoon, a pat of butter, a jar of marmalade. It is in such small acts of kindness that people know they are loved. Which is, she reflects as she moves the sugar bowl to one side, surprisingly rare at their age. So many friends of hers feel overlooked or outgrown or unseen by their husbands, like furniture kept too long. But not her. Robert likes to know where she is at all times, he frets if she leaves the house without telling him, gets edgy if she slips away with-out him seeing, and starts ringing the children to question them on her whereabouts. It used to drive her crazy when they were first married--she used to long for a bit of invisibility, a bit of liberty--but she's used to it now. Gretta saws a hunk from the end of the loaf and slathers it with butter. She gets a terrible weakness in her limbs if she doesn't eat regularly. She told a doctor, years ago, that she thought she had hypoglycemia, after reading about it in a Sunday newspaper. Which would have explained her need to eat quite so often, wouldn't it? But the doctor hadn't even looked up from his prescription pad. "No such luck, I'm afraid, Mrs. Riordan," he'd said, the cheeky so-and-so, and handed her a diet sheet. The children all love this bread. She makes an extra loaf if she's going to visit any of them and takes it, wrapped in a tea towel. She's always done her best to keep Ireland alive in her London-born children. The girls both went to Irish-dancing classes. They had to catch the bus all the way to a place in Cam-den Town. Gretta used to take a cake tin of brack or gingerbread with her to pass around to the other mothers--exiled like her from Cork, from Dublin, from Donegal--and they would watch their daughters dip up and dip down, tap their feet in time to the fiddle. Monica, the teacher had said after only three lessons, had talent, had the potential to be a champion. She always knew, the teacher had said, she could always spot them. But Monica hadn't wanted to become a champion or to enter the competitions. I hate it, she'd whisper, I hate it when everyone looks at you, when the judges write things down. She'd always been so fearful, so cautious, so backwards in coming forwards. Was it Gretta's fault, or were children born like that? Hard to know. Either way, she'd had to allow Monica to give up the dancing, which was a crying shame. Gretta had insisted on regular Mass and communion for each of them (although look how that had turned out). They'd gone to Ireland every year for the summer, fi rst to her mother's and then to the cottage on Omey Island, even when they'd got older and started to moan about the journey. When Aoife was little, she'd loved the excitement of having to wait for the tide to draw back off the causeway, revealing the slick, glassy sand, before they could walk over. "It's only an island sometimes," Aoife had said once, when she was about six, "isn't that right, Mammy?" And Gretta had hugged her and told her how clever she was. She'd been a strange child, always coming out with things like that. They were perfect, those summers, she thinks now, as she bites down into her second slice of bread. Monica and Michael Francis out roaming until all hours and, when Aoife came along, a baby in a crib to keep her company in the kitchen, before she went out to call the others in for their tea. No, she couldn't have done any more. And yet Michael Fran-cis had given his children the most English of English names. Not even an Irish middle name, she'd asked. She wouldn't allow herself to think about how they were growing up heathen. When she'd mentioned to her daughter-in-law that she knew of a lovely Irish-dance school in Camden, not far from them, her daughter-in-law had laughed. In her face. And said--what was it?--is that the one where you're not allowed to move your arms? About Aoife, of course, the less said the better. She'd gone off to America. Never called. Never wrote. Living with some-body, Gretta suspects. Nobody has told her this; call it a mother's instinct. Leave her alone, Michael Francis always says, if Gretta starts to question him about Aoife. Because she knows Michael Francis will know, if anyone does. Always as thick as thieves, those two, despite the age gap. The last they'd heard from Aoife was a postcard at Christ-mas. A postcard. A picture of the Empire State Building on it. For the love of God, she'd shouted, when Robert handed it to her, is she not even able to stretch to a Christmas card, now? As if, she'd continued to shout, I'd never given her a proper upbringing. She'd spent the better part of three weeks sewing a communion dress for that child and she'd looked like an angel. Everybody said so. Who'd have thought then, as she'd stood on the church steps in her white dress and white lace ankle socks, veil fl uttering in the breeze, that she'd grow up so ungrateful, so thoughtless that she'd send a picture of a building to her mother to mark the Christ Child's birthday? Gretta sniffs as she dips her knife into the red mouth of the jam pot. Aoife doesn't bear thinking about. The black sheep, her own sister had called her that time, and Gretta had fl own off the handle and told her to mind her bloody tongue, but she has to concede that Bridie had a point. She crosses herself, says a swift novena for her youngest child under her breath, under the ever-watchful eye of Our Lady, who looks down from the kitchen wall. She cuts another slice of bread, watching the steam vanish into the air. She will not think about Aoife now. There are plenty of good things to focus on instead. Monica might ring tonight--Gretta had told her she'd be near the phone from six. Michael Francis had as good as promised to bring the children over this weekend. She will not think about Aoife, she will not look at the photo of her in the communion outfi t that sits on the mantelpiece, no, she will not. After putting the bread back on the rack to air for Rob-ert, Gretta eats a spoonful of jam, just to keep herself going, then another. She glances up at the clock. Quarter past already. Rob-ert should be back by now. Maybe he bumped into someone and got talking. She wants to ask him will he drive her to the market this afternoon, after the crowds heading to the football stadium have dispersed? She needs a couple of things, some fl our, a few eggs wouldn't go amiss. Where could they go to escape the heat? Maybe a cup of tea at that place with the good scones. They could walk down the street, arm in arm, take the air. Talk to a few people. It was important to keep him busy: ever since the retirement, he can become brooding and bored if confi ned to the house for too long. She likes to organize these outings for them. Gretta goes out through the living room into the hall, opens the front door and walks out onto the path, sidestepping that rusting carcass of a bicycle Robert uses. She looks left, she looks right. She sees next door's cat arch its back, then walk in mincing, feline steps along the wall, towards the lilac bush, where it proceeds to scratch its claws. The road is empty. No one about. She sees a red car caught mid-maneuver, farther up the road. A magpie keens and moans overhead, wheeling sideways in the sky, wing pointing downwards. In the distance, a bus grinds up the hill, a child trundles on a scooter along the pavement, someone somewhere turns on a radio. Gretta puts her hands on her hips. She calls her husband's name, once, twice. The flank of the garden wall throws the sound back to her. Stoke Newington, London Michael has walked from Finsbury Park station. A mad decision in the heat, even at this time of day. But the roads had been choked when he'd emerged aboveground, the buses stranded in traffi c, wheels motionless on the softening tarmac, so he'd set off along the pavement, between the houses that seemed to transpire heat from their very bricks, making the streets into sweltering runnels through which he must toil. He pauses, panting and perspiring, in the shade of the trees that fringe Clissold Park. Removing his tie and freeing his shirt from his trousers, he surveys the damage wreaked by this neverending heatwave: the park is no longer the undulating green lung he has always loved. He has been coming here since he was a child: his mother would pack a picnic--hard-boiled eggs, bluish under their crumbling shells, water that tasted of Tupperware, a wedge of tea cake each; they would all be handed a bag to carry off the bus, even Aoife. "No shirkers," his mother would say loudly, as they stood waiting for the door to open, making the rest of the bus look around. He can remember pushing Aoife in her striped buggy along the path by the railings, trying to get her off to sleep; he can remember his mother trying to coax Monica into that paddling pool. He recalls the park as a space of differing shades of green: the full emerald sweeps of grass, the plintering verdigris of the paddling pool, the lime-yellow of the light through the trees. But now the grass is a scorched ocher, the bare earth showing through, and the trees offer up limp leaves to the unmoving air, as if in reproach. He draws in a breath through his nose and, realizing that the dry air burns his nostrils, takes a look at his watch. Just after five. He should get home. It is the last day of term, the start of the long summer holidays. He has made it to the end of another school year. No more marking, no more classes, no more getting up and getting out in the mornings for six whole weeks. His relief is so enormous that it manifests itself physically, as a weightless, almost dizzy sensation at the back of his head; he has the sense he might stumble if he moves too quickly, so unburdened, so untethered does he feel. He sets off in the most direct route, straight across the burntout grass, out into the shadeless open, where the light is level and merciless, past the shut café where he longed to eat as a child but never did. Daylight robbery, his mother called it, unwrapping sandwiches from their grease-proof shrouds. Sweat breaks out in his hairline, along his spine, his feet move jerkily over the ground and he wonders, not for the first time, how others might see him. A father, returning from his place of work to his home, where his family and his dinner will be waiting. Or a man overheated and sweaty, late, carrying too many books, too many papers, in his briefcase. A person past youth, hair thinning just a little at the crown, wearing shoes that need resoling and socks that require a darn. A man tormented by this heatwave because how is one supposed to dress for work in temperatures such as this, in a shirt and a tie, for God's sake, in long trousers, and how is one meant to concentrate when the female inhabitants of the city walk about pavements and sit in offices in the briefest of shorts, their legs bare and brown and crossed against him, in narrow-strapped tops with their shoulders exposed, just the thinnest of fabrics separating their breasts from the unbearably hot air? A man hurrying home to a wife who will no longer look him in the eye, no longer seek his touch, a wife whose cool indifference has provoked in him such a slow-burning, low-level panic that he cannot sleep in his own bed, cannot sit easily in his own house. The edge of the park is in sight now. He's almost there. One more stretch of grass in full sun, then a road, then around the corner, then it's his street. He can make out the roofs of his neighbors and, if he stretches on tiptoe, the slates of his house, the chimney pot, the skylight beneath which, he is sure, his wife will be sitting. He swats a bead of moisture from his upper lip and switches his briefcase to the opposite hand. At the end of his street, there is a queue at the standpipe. Several of his neighbors, a lady from down the road and a few others he doesn't recognize, straggle across the pavement and onto the road, empty drums at their feet. Some of them chat to each other, one or two wave or nod to him as he passes. The thought that he ought to offer to help the lady passes through his mind; he ought to stop, fill her drum for her, carry it back to her house. It would be the right thing to do. She is his mother's age, perhaps older. He should stop, offer help. How will she manage otherwise? But his feet don't hesitate in their movement. He has to get home, he can't brook any further delay. He unlatches his gate and swings it open, feeling as though it has been weeks since he last saw his home, feeling joy surge through him at the thought that he doesn't have to leave it for six weeks. He loves this place, this house. He loves the black-and-white-tiled front path, the orange-painted front door, with the lion-faced knocker and the blue glass insets. If he could, he would stretch himself skywards until he was big enough to embrace its red-gray bricks. The fact that he has bought it with his own money--or some of his own money, along with a large mortgage--never ceases to amaze him. That, and the fact it contains at this very moment the three people most precious to him in the world. He unlocks the door, steps onto the mat, flings his bag to the floor and shouts, "Hello! I'm home!" He is, for a moment, exactly the person he is meant to be: a man, returning from work, on the threshold of his home, about to greet his family. There is no difference, no schism, between the way the world might see him and the person he privately knows himself to be. "Hello?" he calls again. The house makes no answer. He shuts the door behind him and picks his way through the flotsam of bricks, dolls' clothes and plastic teacups on the hall floor. Excerpted from Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.