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Review of Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave

First, am a massive fan of O’Farrell (Hamnet is why!!!) so I was thrilled when one of my book clubs chose another of hers.

I didn’t like the title – to me, it reeked of O’Farrell coming up empty – “finding titles” ought to be a circle of Dante’s hell – and some young publishing assistant thinking it sounded up-to-date. However, it started promisingly and I love books about unravelling families (see Anne Tyler, also Kingsolver). Also, though not remotely Irish – the name is my husband’s – I worked for two years in the Ulster Orchestra and have a particular affection for Irishness generally.

As mentioned, the book begins promisingly – O’Farrell’s prose as crisp as I’d remembered – but, in the end, the book was a failure. I’m now pretty sure that what we call in tennis “scoreboard pressure” is the reason. Meaning: back when I had a starry literary agent and a posh publisher, I got no peace from either. It was all, “What are you writing now?” and “How’s it going?” and “What’s next?” and, in the end, the pressure was too much for me and my (then untreated) ADHD.

In other words, there are books that one has to write – that one burns to write – and books that one is cajoled/bullied into writing and I’m certain that Hamnet was one of the former and Instructions for a Heatwave one of the latter.

I still like O’Farrell’s writing – there are tiny gems strewn here and there – Gretta is hilarious – and I loved Aoife. However, her disability felt as contrived as her father’s situation, the plotting was poorly-paced, and the end was facile, with almost every reconciliation feeling forced. In short, I am pretty sure she was impelled forward by being obliged to write another book (“or else your readers will buzz off and prize committees forget you and your advances go down instead of up” etc. etc.)

But have I given up on O’Farrell? No way. In fact, have just bought The Marriage Portrait. More once I’ve finished it!  Alice

ALICE McVEIGH

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