Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell

instructions-for-a-heatwave 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 wih 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…

Before I started this book, I had heard many things about it. I was excited to read it, but worried it would suffer from the most debilitating of book illnesses: overhype. However, my fears were unfounded: Instructions for a Heatwave was surprisingly brilliant.

The curtains open on Gretta Riordan. It is morning in her house and she and her husband are starting the day the same way they start all others: she makes breakfast whilst he goes and gets the paper. However, her husband Robert breaks the routine by doing something she could never have expected: disappearing. He’s been glued to her side for years, but all of a sudden he is gone – and she has no idea where.

Whilst she is stunned by Robert’s swift exit, the Riordan children – Michael Francis, Aoife and Monica – are all in the middle of their own emotional turmoils. Michael’s wife hates him, Aoife has never learn to read – stunting her career as a photographer’s assistant – and Monica is trying to work out how to tell her husband’s children, who already don’t like her, that the family cat has died. But their personal dramas are put on pause by their mother’s revelation and they all rally to Gretta’s side.

Tensions, however, still run high; Aoife and Monica’s relationship has been strained for years, and Aoife – now a New York resident – is struggling to return to the life she had left away from so abruptly, whilst Michael Francis is trying to ignore the ever-growing distance between him and his wife Clare. Still, the three rally together, and they go through their father’s possessions – until they discover that he has been making regular payments to a convent in Ireland for years. The Riordans journey to Ireland to track Robert down, trying to untangle their family feuds along the way. But then Gretta admits a revelation that threatens to tear them apart all over again…

Instructions for a Heatwave is an evocative novel with superbly drawn characters – Aoife has to be my favourite. Maggie O’Farrell subtly and masterfully weaves together the strands of the family’s discordant lives, creating a lasting impression that stays imprinted on your memory long after you read the book. A compelling tale of discovery through loss.


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