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Instructions for a Heatwave


Instructions for a Heatwave

The heatwave in Britain in 1976 had record-high temperatures and drought conditions, and the opening lines of Maggie O’Farrell’s novel, INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE, show how stifling and oppressive it was: “The heat, the heat. It wakes Gretta just after dawn…[i]t inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome…it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs.” But Gretta Riordan will not let a “little thing like a heatwave” get in the way of making the weekly soda bread, and she withstands the blast of heat from her oven. The opening pages reveal Gretta’s stubbornness, her husband’s loyalty to ritual, thoughts of a newborn baby, and the vagaries of an Irish family living in London.

While O’Farrell would have been only a toddler during this national disaster of overwhelming heat and strict watering regulations, this sort of event causes people to remember where they were and what they did during its course. The Riordan family experiences its own disaster during this weekend in July when the father steps out for the paper and does not return.

"O’Farrell smartly avoids a tidy wrap-up, but I can tell you that each Riordan changes believably. She also gives insight into what damage can be done to families without some rational honesty, with or without a natural disaster."

Gretta must let her children know that their dad has gone missing, and sends a confusing message to Michael Francis, the son who lives nearby with his wife and two children, and Monica, the daughter whose new young stepdaughters frighten her with their indifference. Michael must call the third child, Aoife, headstrong and difficult, who moved to New York City three years ago and whose most recent communication was a Christmas postcard of the Empire State Building. Gretta’s children will return home, and must survive the days of confrontation over the past and look toward the discovery of what prompted their father to leave.

At first reading, Gretta is the least sympathetic character, but the revelation of the 40-year-old story about her and her husband gives cause for her bad temper and impatience. It also gives her substance as a mother doing her part in keeping family tradition alive. When Aoife arrives, Gretta immediately asks if she would like to borrow a hairbrush. Aoife asks if she is suggesting her hair is a mess. Gretta wonders if they don’t have hairbrushes in New York. Aoife said she has never brushed her hair. The escalation of this silly quarrel is loud and annoying, and of course reveals that they are both anxious about Robert’s whereabouts and must rely on hateful old patterns to establish some normalcy.

Aoife has little peace or contentment in her life, but even in the tense decisions of how to find her father, she is glad to meet Michael’s younger daughter. Despite being estranged from her family, she cannot deny the strong bond with Michael and his children.

O’Farrell has finessed the art of understanding the complexities of family relationships and, most particularly, family secrets: keeping, telling and denying them. Each Riordan family member has a situation of which the others are unaware, and it takes this calamitous weekend for them to acknowledge what keeping these stories private has done to their family.

The family returns to Ireland where they spent summer vacations, and Aoife at last calls her boyfriend in New York to tell her story. She is astonished at herself. The words ‘”fly around in the hot, narrow space of the phone box…like bees from a hive, into the outside world.” The heatwave is still present and still part of the story at the same time this perfect analogy releases Aoife from the sad burden she has carried.

O’Farrell smartly avoids a tidy wrap-up, but I can tell you that each Riordan changes believably. She also gives insight into what damage can be done to families without some rational honesty, with or without a natural disaster.

Reviewed by Jane Krebs on June 21, 2013

Instructions for a Heatwave
by Maggie O'Farrell

  • Publication Date: May 6, 2014
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0345804716
  • ISBN-13: 9780345804716