In Maggie O’Farrell’s latest work, as is true in so many really excellent novels, the plot isn’t the real story.
Instructions for a Heatwave is a compelling novel about family, about dysfunction, and about familial dysfunction, highlighting the million shifting, sharp-edged pieces that combine to make up each human being—pieces that are nearly always invisible to the familial eye.
The novel takes place in London during an unprecedented heatwave in the summer of 1976. Early one morning, with no fanfare or warning, Michael Riordan walks out the front door and out of the lives of his wife and three grown children. That is the plot. The story lies in both the underlying tensions that wind their way through the various narratives as each family member responds to the familial crisis and the cracks that the patriarch’s disappearance reveals in their own lives.
The novel’s denouement ... shows by its very anticlimax that the towering monsters of our youth, and those lies that we tell and we live to keep them hidden and in check, melt away as snow in a heatwave when faced with truth.
Looking for clues to what is really only a mildly interesting mystery, the reader ends by connecting strongly with a disparate, engrossing and perplexingly sympathetic cast. The matriarch of the piece is deeply Catholic English-Irish war bride, with a long-buried secret that threatens the foundation upon which her family is built. Her three children have their share of secrets, as well. The youngest, Aoife, a bi-curious dyslexic ex-pat photographer’s assistant, finds that her own childhood secret has followed her across an ocean. Michael Francis is a bewildered father and academic who suspects that his increasingly distant wife is harboring a secret of her own. The elder sister, Monica, is an overachiever who finds that she has dramatically underachieved in life, and her painful youthful secrets and paranoid misunderstandings alienate her siblings for years on end. As the family gathers in fits and starts to put back together what was only marginally whole to begin with, the mystery nears its resolution.
Midway through the novel, Michael Riordan’s disappearance may seem less a bona fide mystery than a pretext for character development, since ultimately the characters themselves are more interesting than the plotline they are involved in. In terms of story, the author paints a more candid picture by what she chooses not to show us. The novel’s denouement, while it feels a bit small and even gratuitous, shows by its very anticlimax that the towering monsters of our youth, and those lies that we tell and we live to keep them hidden and in check, melt away as snow in a heatwave when faced with truth.
O’Farrell’s writing is strongly reminiscent of the best of Anne Tyler’s work—her style is determinedly character-driven, but never settles for facile empathetic maneuvering or stylistic machinations. The workaday details, the small stories told, are literary gestures, but not empty ones. This is fine storytelling.