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Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

Oh for a late summer heat wave!

There are times when I find myself picking up a book I expect – or hope – to like, read 20, 30, 40 pages or more and find myself so bored I give up. After re-reading The Shipping News this spring I found myself unable to settle to anything else – nothing was quite able to capture my attention until I started to read Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell. From the first page I found myself falling right into this novel and enjoying every delicious word and a wonderful story of family lost and found.


The novel begins with Gretta and Robert Riordan in London, England, just as summer begins in 1976. Robert goes out to get the newspaper, as he has every morning since his retirement, and does not come home. Yes, I know this sounds like just another version of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – but it is so much better. Gretta has no idea what has happened to her husband – she calls her children – her daughters, Monica who lives in a small town not too far from London, Aoife who lives in New York City, and her son, Michael Francis who lives only a few blocks away from his mother.

Each of these adult children has their own story. Michael Francis is the devoted father of two young children, a teacher, unhappy with his job and worried about his marriage. Monica is on her second marriage and determined to make it work in spite of hateful step-children and her own lack of fulfillment. Aoife, the youngest, put as much distance as she could between herself and her family. In New York City she found a way of almost coping with her difficulties, and has found love - though she is at first uncertain about what she really wants from this relationship. These adult children return home to console their mother and search for their father.

Aoife has been away for three years, but once home wonders, “Why is it that twenty-four hours in the company of your family is capable of reducing you to a teenager?” I know exactly how she feels! Perhaps we all do. But Aoife is not a teenager any more and she and her siblings and her mother have to accept that Aoife is a young woman with a life of her own.

The family – together – must come to terms with events in the past that had never been disclosed until now. They must find a way to forgive each other for wrongs done – or imagined. They must behave as a family – help each other in a time of need, and put aside the resentments, the blame, the guilt that each has held in their hearts.

I felt there was so much story left when this novel ended – I would love to know what happens to this family in the years to come. In the meantime, having read this novel I discovered that there are several more by Maggie O’Farrell.

The summer of 1976 was the hottest summer England has known in many years. I was reminded of other novels, Heat Wave by Penelope Lively and In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson and On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill. All take place during a heat wave, summers of exceptional dryness and heat – heat that awakens passion and drives people to behave in ways they would never consider in more moderate weather. Oh for a late summer heat wave!

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