Instructions for a Heatwave Book Review

Instructions for a Heatwave Book Cover Instructions for a Heatwave
Maggie O'Farrell


At a Glance

It's July 1976 and all of the UK is undergoing a massive heatwave. Robert, patriarch of the Riordan family, goes out to run an errand and never comes back. His wife, Gretta, is left with the task of informing their three grown children that their father is gone, and that he's withdrawn a large sum of money from his bank account on the way. Michael Francis, Monica, and Aoife all return home to support their mother and try to unravel the mystery behind their father's disappearance. But, at the same time, they are also dealing with their own problems. Michael Francis' marriage is falling apart, and Monica and Aoife haven't spoken to each other in three years. Each child also has a difficult relationship with Gretta, stemming from her lifelong martyr syndrome. In Instructions for a Heatwave, O'Farrell, explores the secrets that can tear a family apart, and a mystery that might bring them back together.

My Review

I actually came across this book in a very random way. I was on a flight to Atlanta and I noticed a woman seated ahead of me holding a copy of Instructions for a Heatwave. I always like to check out what others are reading, so I quickly searched for it on Goodreads. The plot seemed interesting and there were plenty of good reviews, so I thought I would give it a whirl.

I was not disappointed. Instructions for a Heatwave has been my favorite book I’ve read this year. It was engrossing and tugged at my emotions in a way that doesn’t normally happen.

The mystery of what happened to Robert drew me in at first. Was there foul play? Did he have a medical issue that he hadn’t told anyone about? Was he, after 40 years of marriage, simply done with Gretta and his children? But as the book progressed, I found that the main plot fell away, revealing these amazingly complex characters and their individual back stories. I couldn’t put this book down, simply because I wanted to hear more and more about these interesting people.

Michael Francis is a middle-aged teacher who’s married and has two young  children. He was smart and ambitious from a young age, but unexpectedly got his wife, Claire, pregnant and had to settle into a life that he did not plan. Now, he and Claire are experiencing marital issues and he’s unsure if they’re going to make it. He resents having to deal with the issue of his father disappearing, on top of everything else he’s already juggling, but also struggles with his need to be a good son to Gretta.

Monica, always their mother’s favorite, is in her second marriage, and still pining over her first. She’s always been the dependable child, and Gretta relied on her a lot to help with raising Aiofe. Monica was a second mother to Aiofe, but three years ago they stopped speaking over an issue related to Monica’s ex-husband. Her divorce and estrangement from Aiofe has turned Monica into a bitter and judgmental person. Out of the three siblings, she understands Gretta the best and is able to navigate her temper flares and mood swings.

Aiofe is the youngest and was the most difficult child. She cried constantly as a baby, and then grew into a strange and willful child. She did very badly in school (due to undiagnosed Dyslexia), and eventually left London after school. She moved to the US, and gained work as a photographer’s assistant in New York City. She misses her relationship with Monica, and doesn’t quite understand what went wrong between them. Aiofe also has a very tempestuous relationship with Gretta, bristling at her overbearing nature.

Gretta is the most faceted character of them all. She’s an Irish mother who tried her best to instill cultural values in her children, even as they grew up in London. Gretta loves her family more than anything, but it’s also hard for her to express this. She can be hysterical, manipulative, and sometimes, downright mean. Gretta is also harbouring some secrets that may be the key to understanding what happened to Robert. But, getting her to be open is like pulling teeth.

Learning more and more about each of these unique personalities as the pages turned was a complete delight. Each character was written in a way that you got to know their strengths and their flaws, and you couldn’t help but hope things would get better. For example, there were times that I cringed at how self-absorbed Michael Francis was being, but at the same time I felt bad for him and genuinely wanted things in his life to work out. Same thing with Monica – she could be so cold and vengeful, but I knew that was coming from a place of pain and loneliness.

Instructions for a Heatwave takes readers on many journeys – from London to New York City to a village in Ireland, and then also from 1976 back in time to the 1940s and ’50s. It discusses many hard-hitting topics that weren’t talked about in the ’70s, such as adultery, learning disabilities, and abortion. One of the underlying themes was obviously family, and how difficult they can be. Sometimes the ones we are closest to can also inflict the most pain on us, simply because they know us the best. But, I think the positive message in the book is that while family knows which buttons to press, and which secrets could hurt us the most, they are also the ones we to turn to in a crisis. And, Instructions for a Heatwave shows how even the most fractured families can find their way back to a better place.



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