Instructions for a Heatwave - Maggie O'Farrell

Instructions for a Heatwave - Maggie O'Farrell

A father goes missing and a family has to reunite and face their differences and overcome their grievances in order to solve the puzzle of what might have happened and where he might have gone off to.

This as far as I would go in summarising the plot of this novel. I salute the people who wrote the synopsis on the book’s back as it doesn’t give away half as much as one of the praises in front that makes reference to developments in the story that don’t occur before page 261.

This was a perfect read for a lazy Saturday. I was sucked right in and couldn’t let go until I’ve reached the last page. Only forty pages in and I was wondering if the mother’s character, Gretta, was based on my mother. My mother frowned back at me in every description I read of Gretta, in every one of Gretta’s remarks about her children.

Gretta on Aoife:

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, veil fluttering 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? (page 8)

I felt an incredibly familiarity with all the characters and their relationships even though I did not grow up the child of Irish parents in 1976 England. The immediacy with which I related to the characters was almost frightening at times because it seemed like O’Farrell picked her stories straight from my mind and memories because they are so very knowable. There’s a scene involving a cat early on that reminded me of the dog I used to have growing up – and I had a hard time not to tear up.

Even though I saw my own mother in every description of Gretta, it was still so much easier to empathise with Gretta, especially since she, Gretta, is actually going through a frightening and confusing period of her life. We do learn though, that she isn’t averse to a bit of home-made, overwrought drama when it suits her.

All the members of the Riordan family are a bit flawed which probably makes them so very relatable. One might react with exasperation or a knowing smile to their antics. Their relationships are marked by significant discrepancies in the way they perceive them self and the image that is painted by others. More than ones I felt that O’Farrell was putting a mirror to myself. I found part of myself in the descriptions of the protagonists, usually the traits of my character and behaviour I do not like about myself, and those that remind me of my own mother in an annoying way.

Aoife on Monica:

She was good at it, this very private kind of cold-shouldering, so that only the recipient and no one else noticed. (page 168)

Some part of her recognised that Monica was doing what she always did when confronted: directing the focus away from herself, shifting the blame to her opponent. (page 168)

Michael Francis on observing a conversation between Aoife and Gretta:

Gretta calmly handing out remarks like sweets, but with a subtle lacing of poison, and Aoife hurling them back at her. Aoife is now saying she never brushes her hair, never ever, and Gretta is saying she can well believe it and aren’t there such things as hairdressers in New York? (page 128)

The focus of narration constantly changes from one sibling to the next to their mother. Instead of making for a very unreliable narrator, this emphasises the contradictions in their perceptions of themselves and others. The narration isn’t so much unreliable as very revealing of the psychological intricacies at play. Having been exposed to a certain situation from the perspectives of the two siblings, it’s quite hilarious to observe Monica’s thoughts on the same situation, in which she paints herself quite the martyr.

Monica on her status within the family:

Her father has left. She still cannot accept this fact, still cannot believe it. He has walked out without so much as a thought for her, left behind to deal with all this, to calm a hysterical Gretta, to face a deluge of siblings and relatives. He must have known that she, Monica, would be left to bear the brunt of the trouble and had he cared? No, he had not. He had gone and walked out without a backward glance. How could he have expected her to drop everything and come home to sort things out? It was the height of selfishness, the very essence of disregard. (page 201)

Everyone has a role to play, expectations to fulfil, but it’s quite clear in all their accounts that they love each other in equal measure. There’s quite a bit of sibling rivalry at play, but this is counteracted by the same amount of sibling solidarity. Monica is the responsible one. That much is agreed upon. That she equates the respect and gratefulness this earned her wit a status of being their parents favourite, makes you wonder what other delusions she might entertain. The middle child is never the favourite. This is known. :) Maybe, good old reliable, but neither the family heir nor the baby of the family.

Poor delusional Monica:

She has always known she is the favourite. It is, she tells herself, just the way things are. Nothing was ever said, of course, because that was not their way. But she knows it to be true, in both thought and deed. Everyone knows. Can she help it if they loved her more, if they took more pleasure in her company, if they found the path of her life more compatible with their own? Their constant approval: she has never courted it, never asked for it. She cannot help it; it’s forever been entirely out of her hands. (page 202)

The one thing all three siblings have in common is Gretta, more precisely, it’s Gretta’s driving all of them to distraction. This is where I found my own relationship with mother mirrored the most.

Michael Francis on Gretta:

He puts a hand to his brow. Conversations with his mother can be confusing meanders through a forest of meaning in which nobody has a name and characters drop in and out without warning. You needed to get a toehold, just a slight grasp on your orientation, ascertain the identity of one dramatis persona and then, with any luck, the rest would fall into place. (page 36)

He frowns and holds the receiver closer to his ear. This is the other thing that can happen in conversations with his mother. She has an odd inability to sift important information from irrelevant information. Everything is crucial to her: misplaced shed keys and an absent husband take equal precedence. (page 37)

Aoife on the effects of family:

Aoife has to resist the urge to grind her teeth, to throw something at the wall- Why is it that twenty-four hours in the company of your family is capable of reducing you to a teenager? Is this retrogression cumulative? Will she continue to lose a decade a day? (page 233)

Monica on Gretta’s social behaviour:

Gretta’s head is swivelling about. Monica knows that look, too, that expectant, gimlet gaze. Gretta is looking around for someone to engage in conversation. It makes Monica want to commit violence. How dare her mother be looking around for companions with whom to chat instead of doing what she should be doing, which is getting down on her knees and begging their forgiveness for lying to them their entire lives?
Spotting an elderly couple across the aisle, Gretta hails them with a booming, ‘Hot enough for you?’ the couple raise their heads, like startled sheep, but Gretta is in. She shunts herself along a couple of seats. ‘Are you on holiday?’ she asks. Within seconds, Monica knows, Gretta will have extracted a complete family history from the couple and a comprehensive travel itinerary and will be well on the way to returning the favour. (page 265)

It’s far more hilarious reading about such antics when someone else is on the receiving end of them. I can absolutely empathise. I’m also understanding that my mother isn’t doing the exact same things just to spite and embarrass me. It must be some kind of affliction she is helpless to do anything about.

At the heart of the novel are the dynamics of relationships of a fractured family. The writing is eloquent and articulate; the voices are vivid, distinctive, and to the point. Gretta’s fragmented style emphasises the observations her children make about her. Their contradictory perceptions and occasionally aggravating exchanges made me feel as if I knew them personally. The only time my interest and attention wavered was the account of Michael Francis’ affair. I found that perfectly boring – and perfectly in line with his rather boring personality, which provides a harmonious balance to the more excessive female characters of the family.

Gretta on Robert’s absence, on their relationship:

They have been together for so many years that they are no longer like two people but one strange four-legged creature. For her, so much of their marriage is about talk: she likes to talk, he likes to listen. Without him, she has no one to whom she can address her remarks, her observations, her running commentary about life in general. Her mind, these past days, has been filling up with things like, I saw the oddest-looking baby in the butcher’s today, did you see there’s a new ticket man at the tube station, do you remember that hairdresser’s Bridie went to. Her temples ache with all that is unspoken, unlistened to. (page 179)

They have all grown to depend on each other, to complete each other, if you will, whether they’ve been together or a apart for a longer period of time. Their growing up together in a tight-knit family, in a community they’ve been a part of as much as misfits in, created these bonds that will weather misfortunes and discomforts and will bring them together when in need.

I’ve enjoyed the vivid descriptions of these complex characters a lot; the mystery surrounding the father’s absence almost took second place to training a voyeuristic eye on the interactions between the characters. I had not expected to like this so much. Instructions for a Heatwave afforded me an exceptionally pleasurable reading day.