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"Let us begin with two girls at a dance," writes Maggie O'Farrell, and the reader is immediately pulled into a journey across continents, generations, and the hidden landscapes of the heart. The story she tells encompasses the confused present of a contemporary young woman, Iris Lockhart; the unsuspected past of Iris's grandmother, Kitty, adrift in the forgetfulness of Alzheimer's; and the long-concealed life of Kitty's sister Esme, who has spent a lifetime institutionalized for refusing to accept the conventions of 1930s Edinburgh society.
At the novel's opening, Iris's complicated life demands all her attention: Her vintage clothing shop barely turns a profit, she's having an affair with a married man, and she's never fully reconciled her intense attraction to her step-brother. But all this is pushed aside when Esme's existence is revealed to her, and she discovers that a great-aunt she never knew has been locked away for 60 years, a patient in a mental hospital that's preparing to close its doors for good. After initially refusing to do so, Iris decides to care for Esme and brings the elderly stranger into her home. As the two women become acquainted, Esme's memories -- the childhood she and Kitty shared in India, the death of their young brother, the family's migration to Scotland, and Esme's youthful rebellion against the mores of her class -- transform Iris's sense of her family's past, opening a vault of secrets that will change the character of everything she thought she knew. With seamless narrative artistry, O'Farrell weaves an enthralling tale -- and builds page-turning suspense -- while shifting between Iris's and Esme's points of view, illuminating both with Kitty's fractured but vivid recollections. The taut fabric of the novel's telling enmeshes the reader in a tangled web of jealousy, deception, and betrayal that is shocking, heartbreaking, and unforgettable. Alive with the energy of trapped desires, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is a riveting work of literary imagination.
About the Author
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is Maggie O'Farrell's fourth novel. Her debut, After You'd Gone, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection, won a 2001 Betty Trask Award from Britain's Society of Authors, which has also honored O'Farrell's work with its Somerset Maugham Award. Prior to her work as a novelist, she held positions as a teacher and an arts administrator; she also worked as a journalist, both in Hong Kong and as the Deputy Literary Editor of London's The Independent on Sunday.
Of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, O'Farrell says, "It is a novel I've wanted to write for a long time. I first had the idea -- of a woman who is incarcerated in an asylum for a lifetime -- 15 years ago…. The idea never went away, and I gradually amassed more and more stories and examples of girls who had been committed in the early 20th century for little more than being disobedient or recalcitrant." As she wrestled with the imagining of Esme's stolen life, O'Farrell paid weekly visits to women who had been institutionalized for decades for such "transgressions" as trying to elope or refusing to marry. In an especially poignant exchange, one of them asked O'Farrell if she had been allowed to keep the baby she had recently given birth to.
Maggie O'Farrell was born in Northern Ireland in 1972 and grew up in Wales and Scotland. She now lives with her family in Edinburgh.
Praise for The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
From Our Booksellers
Full of emotion and mystery, this novel took off at warp speed and never let up 'til the very end.
--Margie Turkett, Annapolis, MD
Heartbreaking. A riveting tale of a stolen life.
--Lynn Oris, St. Peters, MO
A compelling read about family secrets and shortcomings. O'Farrell's unfolding tale of individuality and betrayal in the face of social expectations is astounding.
--Sandra Guerfi, White Plains, NY
Immediately gripping and mysterious, I devoured it.
--Rosey McArdell, Apple Valley, MN
A haunting novel. I read it in one sitting! The ending was a shocker, and I have to admit, rather gratifying.
--Angel Ramandt, Baltimore, MD
From Writers and Reviews
I found this actually unputdownable, written with charge and energy and a kind of compelling drive, a clarity and a gripping dramatic insidiousness reminiscent of classic writers like Rebecca West and Daphne du Maurier.
--Ali Smith, author of The Accidental
The novel is brilliant in every way…. Maggie O'Farrell has written a taut, fragile mystery of relationships and deception.
Thoughtful, warm, elegantly written and totally shocking…a fantastic read, a real page-turner.
This haunting and extraordinarily engrossing novel -- part gothic mystery, part tangled family drama -- reminded me why I love reading in the first place….
--Carolyn Parkhurst, author of The Dogs of Babel