I mentioned Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell in my previous post highlighting some of my favorite books of 2013 (and a few from 2012). What I did not mention is that, since listening to John Lee narrate Instructions for a Heatwave, I’ve listened to or read every other novel of hers I could get my hands on, starting with The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006, read by Anne Flosnik), continuing with The Hand That First Held Mine (2010, also read by Anne Flosnik), and most recently, After You’d Gone (2001). Just now I’m waiting for The Distance Between Us (2004) to arrive from another library; after that, there’s My Lover’s Lover (2003), and then I’ll be waiting for her next book just like everyone else, I imagine – impatiently.
Ann Patchett, one of my all-time favorite authors, has said that she writes the same book over and over, and it is true that her books feature characters in situations that are unfamiliar to them, often accompanied by strangers. Agatha Christie wrote mysteries that took place in enclosed environments, such as a small village or a country estate; Jojo Moyes often (though not always) writes love stories that are connected through generations, adding an element of historical resonance and nostalgia. O’Farrell’s gift, talent, or fixation (as Patchett says, I write the book I want to read) is for explosive family secrets – usually something hidden from a younger generation by an older one, slowly uncovered as the two stories are woven together.
After You’d Gone is an early example of this pattern. Alice Raikes was born in Scotland but is living in London; one day, she takes a train to Edinburgh, where her sisters meet her at the station. However, when Alice goes to the loo, she sees something so shocking that she leaves her sisters, takes a train back to London, and, later that day, steps off the curb into moving traffic. While Alice lies in a coma and her family travels to be with her, Alice’s history and that of her family is slowly revealed. Alice’s mother Ann married Ben even though she did not love him – a fact not lost on Ben’s mother Elspeth – and when Alice learns her mother’s secret, it changes her own relationship to her whole family. This revelation, on top of Alice’s grief over a recent tragedy of her own, leads to Alice’s desperate action. The story is narrated mostly in the third person, but there are a few sections in first person, for no clear reason. This puzzlement aside, the book is almost flawless; though the plot is not as intricate and unguessable as in later books, the pacing and characters are superb.
More than almost any other book I’ve read, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox illustrates in heartbreaking fashion the social constraints on women as recently as two generations ago, by juxtaposing Esme’s story with that of her grand-niece, Iris. Iris receives a call one day from Cauldstone Hospital; despite her ignorance of Esme’s existence – her grandmother Kathleen (Kitty) never mentioned siblings – Iris is listed as the elderly Esme’s next of kin. Nevertheless, Iris can’t abandon Esme, so she brings her home with her temporarily. Esme – who doesn’t seem mad at all, despite having spent most of her life institutionalized – is stunned by Iris’ life: her freedom to live alone, wear what she likes, manage her own business, not rely on a husband or father. These were the things Esme wanted for herself, but which were unthinkable in her time, and that situation led to tragedy upon tragedy. Narration is in the third person, alternating between Iris’ and Esme’s point of view, occasionally interspersed with Kitty’s stream-of-consciousness thoughts from within her Alzheimer’s haze. In this way, the reader understands Esme’s story more fully than Iris does, but Iris still understands enough to piece together crucial parts of the past. The story concludes with Esme and Kitty meeting again for the first time since they were teenagers, and a final, shocking event.
The Hand That First Held Mine also weaves two stories together from different time periods, but in this case it is less immediately apparent how they are connected. In the mid-1990s (?), Ted and Elina are at home with their new baby, after a horrifying labor and a near-death experience for Elina, the trauma of which she has blocked out. The memories trickle back, however, and having a baby in the house seems to be bringing back Ted’s earliest memories as well; these memories raise questions that Ted’s mother refuses to answer. The answers, of course, lie in the past: in the late 1950s, Lexie Sinclair runs away to London, where she falls in love with Innes Kent. She works at Innes’ magazine and eventually moves in with him, but this makes Innes’ wife Gloria furious, despite the fact that she and Innes are separated. Gloria turns her daughter Margot against Innes and Lexie, with long-reaching consequences for them all. (In fact, when I got to the part where a major piece of the puzzle is revealed, I actually said “Oh my God” out loud.) In The Hand That First Held Mine, O’Farrell’s genius for intricate plotting is breathtaking, and her gift for characterization will leave no reader unaffected.
Of all the reading I’ve done this year, Maggie O’Farrell’s books have been some of the best. Though I wouldn’t want to be one of her characters, I’ll be recommending her books for years to come.