Friday, 29 November 2013

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell

Published 2013   set in 1976






[She decided on] a frilled dress in lawn cotton. One of Peter’s favourites. He said it made her look like a milkmaid. Apparently this was a good thing. They had gone together to a boutique in Oxford to buy these clothes; shopping with a man was not something Monica was used to. She had always gone with her mother or her sister; she wasn’t one for shopping alone, found it hard to make up her mind, could never decide if something suited her or not. So she had taken Gretta or, in later years, Aoife, who, despite dressing like a tramp, was surprisingly good at knowing what looked right on people. Monica wasn’t at all used to the idea of coming out through the curtained door to display yourself to a man waiting in a chair, to elicit his approval before you even knew yourself whether you liked it. Joe had hated shopping, would never have gone with her, even if she’d asked.


observations: This is Monica, getting dressed in the middle of the heatwave of 1976, and in all conscience the dress probably wasn’t even as nice as the one in the picture – a lot more covered-up. This is the story of a family crisis at a very specific time and place: Monica’s father, Robert, has disappeared, apparently just walked away from her mother Gretta. The three siblings, Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife gather at the family home to see what can be done: everything happens from Thursday to Sunday (although with some flashbacks and memories). To anyone who lived through the drought summer of 1976, the atmosphere is very well-done – much better than in the William Boyd book Restless, yesterday, which takes the same specific time and does nothing with it. O’Farrell is good on the heat, the restlessness the simultaneous enjoyment of heat and hatred of it, and the strange feeling that there has never been weather like this before.

It’s a very entertaining and involving book: very good on different kinds of families, shouty ones and quiet ones:

He was used to a house in which people clattered from room to room, shouted down staircases, banged open doors to yell, what time do you call this, where people threw themselves into chairs, slammed down teacups, used more words than perhaps they needed to.
-- and O’Farrell is also good on class differences, the expectations of the children, the clothes they wear, the mother setting the tone of the family. There are family secrets and problems and misunderstandings, and it is all extremely well-written – but you’re left with a faint feeling that it was all a bit easy, that the plot (suddenly emerging in the final quarter) was just an excuse to write about these people, and that it’s good, but doesn’t quite soar. But still, a very entertaining book. And really, much better than the much-praised Restless.

The picture is from a fashion magazine from the summer of 1977.

12 comments:

  1. Moira - I remember that hot, hot summer. It was quite a time and I'm glad it's handled effectively here. And I can sense just from the bit you've shared that there's some solid tension in the novel. And oh do I know what Monica means about people whom you do and don't take shopping...

    Absolutely pitch-perfect choice of 'photo, too!

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    1. Margot - it's a very good picture of family life and relationships - and yes, certainly dresses like that were worn...

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  2. Moira: Now there is a journey fraught with tension for a man. Going with my wife when she is shopping for clothes is challenging.

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    1. You're so right, Bill. Still a great gender divide there on the whole....

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  3. I enjoyed the write-up and if push came to shove would probably enjoy the book, but I think you read it, so I don't have to

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    1. ...and if you have any remaining questions about the book, do feel free to ask them. That will indeed save you time reading it...

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  4. I have this on my shelf, for when I get off crime fiction for a while. I'm looking forward to it after your review (but I did like Restless!)

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    1. We'll have to hope we don't disagree about everything.... but I think you'll enjoy this as a light satisfying read.

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  5. I LOVED her Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox so this is on my to read list now.
    '76 was my main O level year, and oh boy, did we have trouble revising that summer term?!

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    1. You'll love it - anyone who lived through that summer will find the book very nostalgic....

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  6. Sounds interesting, but I already have enough unread non-mystery fiction that I cannot motivate myself to read. [And that does not include Little Shadows, which I am looking forward to, notwithstanding the length.]

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    1. I can totally understand that! It's a good, well-written book, but probably of most interest to people who were in the UK in 1976 - it's recognizing her historical detail that's so much fun.

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