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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

3.7 386
by Maggie O'Farrell

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In the middle of tending to the everyday business at her vintage clothing shop and sidestepping her married boyfriend's attempts at commitment, Iris Lockhart receives a stunning phone call: Her great-aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, is being released from Cauldstone Hospital—where she has been locked away for over sixty years. Iris’s grandmother


In the middle of tending to the everyday business at her vintage clothing shop and sidestepping her married boyfriend's attempts at commitment, Iris Lockhart receives a stunning phone call: Her great-aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, is being released from Cauldstone Hospital—where she has been locked away for over sixty years. Iris’s grandmother Kitty always claimed to be an only child. But Esme’s papers prove she is Kitty’s sister, and Iris can see the shadow of her dead father in Esme’s face. Esme has been labeled harmless—sane enough to coexist with the rest of the world. But Esme’s still basically a stranger, a family member never mentioned by the family, and one who is sure to bring life-altering secrets with her when she leaves the ward. If Iris takes her in, what dangerous truths might she inherit?

Maggie O’Farrell’s intricate tale of family secrets, lost lives, and the freedom brought by truth will haunt readers long past its final page.

Editorial Reviews

A Selection of Barnes & Noble Recommends
"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.
--Literary Review

Thoughtful, warm, elegantly written and totally shocking…a fantastic read, a real page-turner.
--Daily Express

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
Ron Charles
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
Julia Scheeres
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
Publishers Weekly

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."
Library Journal

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

Kirkus Reviews
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 novel—part gothic mystery, part tangled family drama—reminded 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
"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)

Product Details

Center Point Large Print
Publication date:
Readers Circle Series
Edition description:
Large Print
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

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.

Meet the Author

MAGGIE O'FARRELL is the author of four previous novels, including the acclaimed The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which was a B&N Recommends Pick, and After You’d Gone. Born in Northern Ireland in 1972, O'Farrell grew up in Wales and Scotland. She has two children.

Brief Biography

Edinburgh, Scotland, UK     
Place of Birth:
Coleraine, Northern Ireland
BA Hons, English Literature, University of Cambridge

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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 386 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read for pure entertainment...show me a good story. I am a pretty tough critic and I am often disappointed by 'recommended' books. However, this book was absolutely amazing. I was hooked from the very first chapter. Although the book is sad at times the overall feeling when reading it is not sad, simply enjoyable. I wish the ending would have had a bit more resolution however. I will definitely try more titles by this author.
-JACKI- More than 1 year ago
A lifetime of betrayal, terrible secrets and disregarded women's rights are revealed in this haunting, provocative novel. Esme Lennox is a spirited girl who refuses to conform to the 1930's social pattern and as a result is locked up by her family in a mental institution. Sixty years later, her great niece, Iris, receives a phone call to tell her that the asylum is closing and she needs to take responsibility for her grandmother's sister.whom she had never heard of. This is one of those books that makes you realize just how fortunate you are!
bug167 More than 1 year ago
The plot would have been good and the story interesting (although not highly original) if the writing style weren't so hideously incomprehensible! There are three main female characters. Half the time I couldn't remotely figure out which character was 'speaking,' what year it was, or what was actually going on! It was the most annoying book I've read in a long, long time. The final insult was the end of the book. It just ended abruptly. Because it was so confusing, the reader never knows what happened at the end of the book. One can definitely speculate, but what's the point of that? It was so frustrating I almost slung my e-reader at the wall when it was finished. I would not recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a relaxing, interesting, consuming read. The first two chapters were well written and certainly made me look forward to reading the rest of the book. Once the three main characters were introduced fully, the writing took on its ridiculous back and forth between the three characters (although it wasn't interaction between the characters) with no indication which was 'speaking,' whose brain you were in or even what they were thinking/talking about; it was just random thoughts. One of the most aggravating parts about this book is that I believe this author has potential as a good writer and yet it was all wasted on a stream of consciousness from three women whom you couldn't identify when their internal dialogues were being switched back and forth rapidly from one paragraph to the next. EXTREMELY ANNOYING!!!! I think this would be an extremely frustrating book club subject. Fortunately, it wasn't a long book. I might try another book by this author, but I would be very skeptical. If a second book was like this one in writing style, I definitely wouldn't give her a third chance.
SusanIL More than 1 year ago
This book was so engaging, the story so entralling you are grabbed from the first sentence. I read it in nearly a day and had the hardest time putting it down! The three characters build the suspense and you cannot help but be drawn into the agony that each feels in their situation. I loved this book so much that I am going to read the rest of O'Farrell's work!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Esme Lennox is not a giddy book. It won't fill you with warm and fuzzy feelings or leave you on a superficially high note or surround you with cotton candy happy thoughts. Instead, it is a magnificent, heartbreaking glimpse into the lives of two women who have never met but have everything in the world in common, except that one of them was lucky enough to be born in thirty years later. O'Farrell is a glorious writer who masterfully tells the story from three different perspectives. And every inch of it - from dusty colonial India to the grim asylum to the streets of modern Edinburgh - rings terribly true to life. This book at first will leave you wondering and hoping and arguing ... but after all that, you'll realize that it didn't really leave you at all.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What a great book. Took me some time to get into it, but I got very involved with the characters. I wanted more and was sorry when it was all too soon, finished... I am really hoping for more of the story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I can't say enough good things about this book. I rarely read fiction (I usually stick with travelogues) but this one caught my eye and I couldn't put it down. An incredibly engrossing story, beautifully written, and it sticks with you long after you finish the book. A must read!!
Timberlake More than 1 year ago
Ms O'Farrell had me within the first few pages. I hated putting this book down each night. Although it was sad, it was so touching and I found myself trying to help Esme in my own mind. It tore at my heart the story of her past and the aloneness she felt. She was different from those immediately around her as she wanted more from life than what was expected of her and tried to break through the boundries set for her. This set her apart from others including her family. When atrocity occurred at a party, which she didn't understand but that horrified her, she had no one that she felt she could turn to. As other times, she found it necessary to bury herself away, as they pushed her away.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The main character is foot loose and fancy free with a casual romantic relationship. Suddenly she learns of a family member long hidden away. If you have any knowledge of or interest in mental illness you will find this interesting as the main character develops compassion she didn't know she had. I highly recommend this book and look forward to more from Maggie O'Farrell.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Read it in one day - easy to follow, but still had interesting twists and turns. Definitely recommend it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading all your reviews, I was so excited to read this book. But I'm sorry to say that I was disappointed. If I'd had no expectations of the book I might have liked it more. But I found it too jumpy. While reading what was apparently journal entries by one of the book's characters, I wondered where they came from? Were we the only ones 'the readers' privy to the journal's information? I would liked to have seen more relationship development between Esme and Iris. Too, I'm still confused about the relationship between Alex and Iris. Why was it significant that Kitty 'caught' them? And for the life of me, I still don't know what happened at the very end of the book. I don't want to say much because I don't want to spoil it. But I re-read the last 3 or 4 pages several times and couldn't believe it ended so abruptly where it was. I just felt like there was a LOT more story that needed to be told. I almost wish one of you would read this and email me to help me figure it out. I read quite a lot yet this book left me confused. I'm not saying it didn't have it's high points. I actually enjoyed 75% of the book. I just felt like structurally, it could have been more fluent and there were some loose ends that needed to be tied up. It's short, so it's worth a read. I'd like to know what other's think.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I agree with other reviewers that the style of writing that this author uses is difficult to read. It is difficult sometimes to know who
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Character development is wonderfully written, the story told in good literary fashion- i will read more of this authors work
bookhound-kt More than 1 year ago
The story of Esme, her sister and her young relative, depicts the inequality of women throughout the beginning of the 20th century. Told in many voices, the story is heartbreaking, sorrowful and full of injustice. It is a great bookclub read as it covers many contraversial subjects.
gypsyheart More than 1 year ago
I wished there was a little more detail, I felt like the ending was a little rushed. But I really enjoyed it. The author's writing style was very unique, and took me a couple of chapters to get the flow of things, but once I got it, I really enjoyed the story. I can't wait to read the author's other works.
Kate_Sullivan More than 1 year ago
A sad tale of what can sometimes happen (then and now) if you march to the beat of your own drum. The thing I didn't care for in this book was the abrupt and disjointed thoughts by Kitty (maybe other characters too but I can't remember and I don't want to go back and reread it) throughout the story (I think that begins on about page 72 or so). I found the style of it distracting. Esme's plight is heartbreaking and even though her final act is her own personal justice, it didn't leave me cheering for her or Iris.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. Couldn't put it down. If anyone doesn't think women's rights have came a long way, read this book. These things really happened!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was very intriguing and yet a light and easy read. I found myself drawn chin-deep into the book and the characters until the very end. The big finish was not as surprising as I thought it would be however, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. The numerous looping strings of memories and thoughts that mostly comprised this read were an excellent fit for such a story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was very surprised by this book. Usually it's not my style, I'm very much into anything scifi or fantasy, however something about this book peaked my interested. In the beginning I was a little concerned but I made myself give the book a chance and I was pleasantly surprised. I do understand where some people are coming from with the short ending, but I think by that point you've developed an understanding of the characters that I dont mind that it wasn't spelled out word for word what happened. Overall I think it's a really good book to read once just because it is so interesting.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is absolutely outstanding! I went to my local Barnes and Noble store one night and found it in the clearance section. The cover caught my eye and I read the synopsis. It sounded alright to me so I bought it. I read it in two nights! I couldn't put it down! It has so much depth and meaning. I recommend it entirely!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I truly connected with this book. I unlike others did not see the twist of plot and the surprise ending. I found the scattered jumping for character to character very interesting and that was what really had me not wanting to put it down. Cliff hanger ending? Not really, we all know what happened to Esme deep down, we just can't imagine her doing something to go back!!! Read and be angry, sad, and justified. The way women 'were' treated! I had no idea, not really.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A group of 5 friends and I all read this book and loved it! It is a quick, yet fulfilling read. The ending does leave questions unanswered but it is perfectly fitting for the nature of the story. Sometimes, we don't get all of our questions answered, yet life goes on. This is the story with Esme and her niece.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is a tale a love, deception, and dark family secrets. The way Farewell lays out the story from beginning to end is suspenseful, dramatic, and somewhat a tear jerker. In the beginning in can be confusing on whats going on, but by the time you get to page 20 your deeply engrossed in the novel. This is the type of book that everyone should read, not only for entertainment but also for the great moral of the story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I felt compelled to write a review for this book. It's one of the best I've read in a long time and one that sticks with you long after you're done. At first, I was unsure about it, but once the story started to move along, I couldn't put it down. Maggie writes in such a way that you think, I know what's going to happen, when in fact, you don't. It's a great read. If you're on the fence about getting it, just do it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read previous reviews that stated it was hard to follow who was narrating. I don't agree. I found it very easy to establish who was narrating. The author did a great job of establishing a different way of 'thinking' for each character. I loved it. I cried for Esme and even sympathized a bit with Kitty. I kind of guessed at the 'surprise ending' early on, but still enjoyed reading the book when it ws revealed.