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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
Maggie O'Farrell's three previous novels have been respectfully reviewed, but her new one radiates the kind of energy that marks a classic. Think Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Charlotte Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" or Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea: stories that illuminate the suffering quietly endured by women in polite society. To that list of insightful feminist tales add The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. At the heart of this fantastic new novel is a mystery you want to solve until you start to suspect the truth, and then you read on in a panic, horrified that you may be right.
The Washington Post
O'Farrell is a very visual writer, creating dead-on images like the "arched pink rafters" of a dog's mouth and a chandelier's "points of light kaleidoscoping" above a dance floor. This talent serves her well at the novel's startling and darkly rewarding finale.
The New York Times
O'Farrell (After You'd Gone) delivers an intricate, eloquent novel of family malice, longings and betrayal. Slim, stylish Iris Lockhart runs a dress shop in contemporary Edinburgh when she's not flirting with her stepbrother Alex or rendezvousing with her married attorney lover, Luke. Esme Lennox, meanwhile, is ready to be discharged from the soon-to-be-closed psychiatric hospital where she's been a patient (read: virtual prisoner) for 61 years. Iris becomes aware of Esme's existence when she's informed, to her disbelief, that she has been granted power of attorney over Esme by Kitty Lockhart, Iris's Alzheimer's-afflicted grandmother. It turns out Kitty and Esme are sisters, but Kitty kept quiet about Esme after she was hospitalized at age 16. Layer upon layer of Lockhart family secrets are laid bare-the truth behind Esme's institutionalization, why her existence was kept a secret, and a twist involving Iris's parents-as Iris mulls over what to do with her new charge, and Esme and Kitty reconnect. O'Farrell maintains a high level of tension throughout, and the conclusion is devastating. (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
"A moving human drama."
Iris Lockhart leads a solitary if spicy life, managing her clothing shop in Edinburgh and dallying with her married lover. But when Iris learns that she has a great-aunt Esme waiting to be released from Cauldstone Hospital, where she has been locked away for 60 years, it is as if a bomb has dropped. The hospital is closing, and someone must collect Esme, who upon inspection seems frail, quiet, and a little quirky but hardly mentally ill. As far as Iris knew, her grandmother Kitty had no siblings; Kitty is still alive but suffering from Alzheimer's. The secret of Esme's existence is only the first of many family secrets revealed in a tale told through shifting viewpoints, among them Kitty's fragmented recollections. A sudden ending to this finely wrought family exposé may leave some readers in the lurch, but the psychological suspense along the way should satisfy those looking for both strong plot and characterization. O'Farrell's (After You'd Gone) fourth novel is recommended for literary fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ6/1/07.]
Keddy Ann Outlaw
When the willfully unattached Iris Lockhart receives a call about a great aunt she never met, her loner lifestyle gets woven into a much larger family drama. Iris may harbor a secret forbidden passion, but in her real-life affairs she prefers a detached approach. Therefore, when a call comes from the soon-to-close Cauldstone Hospital, asking what she would like to do with an elderly relative she didn't know existed, she is faced with more intimacy than she's comfortable with. Her great-aunt Esme, mistakenly called "Euphemia" by the staff, has been hospitalized for more than 60 years for various vague psychiatric disorders, at one point it seems for simply not wanting her hair to be cut. After Iris tries to place her, and recoils from the horrors of the recommended halfway house, she takes her into her own flat, carved out of the Scottish family's original grand home, on a trial basis. Over the course of one long weekend, that trial reveals truths about why Esme was hospitalized and why Iris never heard of her, and also delves into Iris's fear of intimacy as her married lover, Luke, teeters on the edge of leaving his wife. Relying on a complex structure that recalls O'Farrell's earlier work (My Lover's Lover, 2003, etc.), most of the book's present action is focused on Iris's day-to-day functioning. But this contemporary action is merely the finale of a drama that's been going on since Esme's youth in India. That story unfolds primarily through a series of inner monologues. Esme enjoys rediscovering some memories but avoids others, while her sister Kitty, now institutionalized with Alzheimer's, runs through old mistakes and excuses that still haunt her in her dementia. At times, thesecompeting voices, each with a different take on exactly what happened, can be confusing, but by the novel's surprising ending, each has become clear. Despite occasional opacity, this slow-building, impressionistic work amply rewards dedicated readers with a moving human drama.
"O'Farrell's fourth novel brilliantly illustrates her talent for gradually revealing her characters' inner lives by jumping back and forth in time and juxtaposing different narrative points of view.... A gripping read with superbly crafted scenes that will blaze in the reader's memory long after the novel is returned to the shelf."
author of THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE - Audrey Niffenegger
"The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is a strange, sad, and a marvelously well-written novel. I would like to think that families only behave this way in books, but unfortunately betrayal, jealousy, and secrets are all too common in real life. It was a terrific book, I will be thinking about it for a long time."
author of THE DOGS OF BABEL - Carolyn Parkhurst
"This haunting and extraordinarily engrossing novelpart gothic mystery, part tangled family dramareminded me why I love reading in the first place: it's because a well-written book has the power to carry us away to a place we've never been but always suspected it was there. I'm grateful to Maggie O'Farrell for revealing this story to the world of readers."
From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX
"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
"Almost ridiculously pleasurable . . . shocking, heartbreaking, and fascinating."The Times (London)
Read an Excerpt
From all her family -- her and Kitty and Hugo and all the other babies and her parents -- from all of them, there is only this girl. She is the only one left. They have all narrowed down to this black-haired girl sitting on the sand, who has no idea that her hands and her eyes and the tilt of her head and the fall of her hair belong to Esme's mother. We are all, Esme decides, just vessels through which identities pass: we are lent features, gestures, habits, then we hand them on. Nothing is our own. We begin in the world as anagrams of our antecedents.