Sunday, August 25, 2013

Book Review: Instructions for a Heatwave

By Miriam Plotinsky

As I stopped at Ben and Jerry’s today for a scoop of ice cream in this unrelenting, muggy heat, I opted to eat my treat inside so that it wouldn’t melt before I could enjoy it. In the midst of this typically humid D.C. summer, I’ve been in a perfect mindset to read Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave. Set in 1976 London during a particularly grueling summer, O’Farrell’s novel seems at first to be about a disappearing man, Robert Riordan, but the true story lies behind the individual circumstances of each member of his family.

During the hottest days on record, Gretta Riordan awakens one day to find that her husband, Robert, has vanished. An eccentric, larger-than-life woman, Gretta decides that the best course of action would be not to wait for the police to get interested in the matter, but rather to call upon her children to help her find him, a decision that makes more sense as the book progresses and some of Gretta’s secrets come to light.

The strongest element of this book is, quite simply, the characters. Gretta, despite her booming presence, is the least interesting of them all, being a somewhat stereotyped Irish matriarch. Her children, however, are each in turn struggling with compelling and realistic issues, from dyslexia to unruly stepchildren to marital tension, and their efforts to surmount the mistakes of the past and save their futures are what make this book work. Without these conflicts, the plot wouldn’t have much movement, since the whole story takes place over a very short period of time.

Adding to the book’s charm is the compelling writing style. O’Farrell knows how to pull in readers and keep their attention, and her powers of narration are strong. Even with a story that is based more on psychological inner turmoil than action-driven conflict, she manages to keep the pace flowing smoothly throughout the novel. The only little snag in the book is that Robert Riordan’s disappearance is mainly a device to pull all the characters together, so when the reader finds out why he left Gretta, what should be a big moment is rather anticlimactic. Still, even with that hiccup, the plot is compelling and we really care about the fate of the various members of the Riordan family.

The typical oppressiveness of a heat wave is certainly not reflected in the smooth and skillful writing in O’Farrell’s absorbing tale. Instructions for a Heatwave untangles the secrets and deceptions that mark a family’s history with a refreshing adeptness that make it a necessary read for a hot summer’s day. Having some Ben and Jerry’s on the side wouldn’t hurt either.

Thanks to Alfred A. Knopf Publishing for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Maggie O'Farrell:

No comments: