It’s July 1976. In London, it hasn’t rained for months, gardens are filled with aphids, water comes from a standpipe, and Robert Riordan tells his wife Gretta that he’s going round the corner to buy a newspaper. He doesn’t come back. The search for Robert brings Gretta’s children – two estranged sisters and a brother on the brink of divorce – back home, each with different ideas as to where their father might have gone. None of them suspects that their mother might have an explanation that even now she cannot share.
Set over just a handful of days in the scorching summer of 1976, Instructions for a Heatwave is the story of the Riordan family; Mother Gretta, Father Robert and their grown up children, Monica, Michael Francis and Aoife. The novel opens with a touching scene of domesticity; I loved the descriptions of Gretta and Robert as they start their day, which show a couple growing old together. But then Robert pops out to buy a newspaper and doesn’t return, setting off a chain of events that brings the family back together and ultimately reveals a number of deeply hidden family secrets.
I’ve been a fan of Maggie O’Farrell for a long time now and have read all of her novels. It sounds clichéd and simplistic to say that her writing just gets better and better but it’s true! Instructions for a Heatwave is a detailed depiction of an ordinary family made extraordinary and infinitely interesting by the way that their thoughts, feelings and actions past and present are depicted. I could happily read volumes about the Riordans and they are so believable that having finished reading the book I feel like I actually know them.
What I love most about Maggie O’Farrell’s books is that she really gets under the skin and inside the heads of all of her characters showing their strengths and failings and making them completely and believably human. In this novel, O’Farrell looks at the relationships between parents and their children, between partners and between siblings and shows just how complex they can be. I was absolutely fascinated as I learned about Monica, Michael-Francis and Aoife’s childhoods as the familiar sights, sounds and smells of home trigger memories with each flashback shedding light on the adult they have now become. Each of the Riordan children is facing a crossroads in terms of their romantic relationships and as the spotlight is pointed at Gretta and Robert’s relationship too, Instructions for a Heatwave is a gripping story of the sacrifices that we make for the people we love.
Aoife is without a doubt, my favourite character in the book; partly I think because she’s the underdog in the family, partly because of the secret she hides so well and the way she hides it so cleverly and in a large part because she has escaped to New York and I enjoyed the details of her life as a photographers assistant. Perhaps because of my fondness for Aoife, I didn’t particularly warm to her sister Monica but as the twists to the story revealed themselves, I did understand her actions. I’m terrible for wanting all the loose ends tied up and a definitive conclusion to the books I read but although Instructions for a Heatwave left me with a lot of questions, it also left me with a wonderful sense of hope, especially for Aoife and I found that I didn’t mind that the finale was open-ended.
While I was reading this book, I tweeted that Maggie O’Farrell makes every single word count. The way the words are put together is brilliantly clever yet wonderfully easy to read. I dragged out my reading of Heatwave as long as I could because I didn’t want it to end! As you can see, I loved this book. If you haven’t read a Maggie O’Farrell novel yet, this is a great place to start and if you’re already a fan, then you know you’re in for a treat!
Instructions for a Heatwave is released in Hardback and ebook formats on 28th February.
I’d like to thank Georgina at Headline for sending me a review copy of this novel.
You can find out more about Maggie O’Farrell and her books at: http://www.maggieofarrell.com/