Instructions for a Heatwave is another book that seemed to have a lots of buzz about it in 2013 when it came out (see my recent review of Stoner by John Williams for all the buzz about that). Originally published in hardback at the beginning of the year, the paperback followed fairly quickly and was published in the same year (it was picked for the Richard & Judy Autumn 2013 Book Club). Maggie O’Farrell is a writer that, for me, seems to straddle the gap between chick lit (brr, horrible term) and literary fiction – I read her novel The Hand That First Held Mine (which won the Costa Novel award in 2010) a few years ago and although I enjoyed it, I found it lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. I’m sorry to say that Instructions for a Heatwave left me with a similar feeling of ‘meh’.
Blurb from the publisher
‘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.’
The story starts out well, setting the scene as Robert disappears, a normal morning, except the heatwave has been going on for weeks and people are starting to go crazy. The children start to gather back round the family home, and I particularly enjoyed the parts concerning Aoife who returns home from New York. It wasn’t a surprise to me after reading these sections that O’Farrell had been inspired and influenced by Colm Tóibín’s wonderful novel Brooklyn.
The other characters just didn’t feel fleshed out enough however, and I wanted more depth to them. For example, Michael Francis’s relationship with his wife, and in particular her breakdown, just didn’t seem real to me – it felt like his ‘problem’. Because each of the characters has to have a ‘problem’. For Aoife, it’s her learning disability which she feels ashamed of and tries to hide; for Monica, (she gets two) it is her struggle to endear herself to her stepdaughters, and the secret of why she split from her first husband, Joe; and for Gretta, it’s a secret that she’s been hiding from everyone for quite some time and isn’t ready to reveal yet. I wanted there to be fewer characters to focus on, or more time to spend with them to find out what made them tick. I wanted the heatwave to make them act crazy, to do things they wouldn’t normally do and for the reader to be challenged a bit more.
There are some nice episodes in it, and I do enjoy O’Farrell’s style of writing as it’s both lyrical and accessible. But the plot seems to get a bit lost in the characters’ various ‘problems’, and it seems to get completely forgotten at points that their father has gone AWOL and, in fact, there seems to be a general lack of sentimentality when they talk about him, poor man. He is but a plot device to bring the family back together and to bring their secrets out into the open. What was his name, again?
The ending in Ireland is a bit twee and inconclusive. It doesn’t really give many answers, not in that good way where part of the fun on the reader’s part is deciding what happens for yourself, but in an ‘oh well, that’s that over I suppose’ kind of way that fails to leave much of a lasting impression. I feel like I’m being rather hard on it, it’s not really a bad book (and an awful lot better than a lot of fiction out there marketed to women), but it just falls a bit flat and I had expected a lot more given the buzz. All that said, I really did love the cover! (I never know if you’re meant to consider that in a review…)