“Strange weather brings out strange behavior.” London, 1976. In the thick of a record-breaking heatwave, Gretta Riordan’s newly retired husband has cleaned out his bank account and vanished. Now, for the first time in years, Gretta calls her children home: Michael Francis, a history teacher whose marriage is failing; Monica, whose blighted past has driven a wedge between her and her younger sister; and Aoife, the youngest, whose new life in Manhattan is elaborately arranged to conceal a devastating secret.
In a story that stretches from the Upper West Side to a village on the coast of Ireland, Maggie O’Farrell explores the mysteries that inhere within families, and reveals the fault lines over which we build our lives.
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The heat, the heat. It wakes Gretta just after dawn, propelling her from the bed and down the stairs. It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs. The air in the kitchen is like a solid entity ﬁlling the space, pushing Gretta down into the ﬂoor, against the side of the table.
Only she would choose to bake bread in such weather.
Consider her now, yanking open the oven and grimacing in its scorching blast as she pulls out the bread tin. She is in her nightdress, hair still wound onto curlers. She takes two steps backwards and tips the steaming loaf into the sink, the weight of it reminding her, as it always does, of a baby, a newborn, the packed, damp warmth of it.
She has made soda bread three times a week for her entire married life. She is not about to let a little thing like a heatwave get in the way of that. Of course, living in London, it is impossible to get buttermilk; she has to make do with a mixture of half milk and half yogurt. A woman at Mass told her it worked and it does, up to a point, but it is never quite the same.
At a clacking sound on the lino behind her, she says, “Is that you? Bread’s ready.”
“It’s going to be—” he begins, then stops.
Gretta waits for a moment before turning around. Robert is standing between the sink and the table, his large hands upturned, as if he’s holding a tea tray. He is staring at some-thing. The tarnished chrome of the tap, perhaps, the runnels of the draining board, that rusting enamel pan. Everything around them is so familiar, it’s impossible sometimes to tell what your eye has been trained upon, the way a person can no longer hear the individual notes of a known piece of music.
“It’s going to be a what?” she demands. He doesn’t reply. She moves towards him and places a palm on his shoulder. “You all right?” She has, of late, been ﬁnding herself reminded of his age, the sudden stoop of his back, the look of mild confusion on his face.
“What?” He swings his head around to look at her, as if startled by her touch. “Yes.” He nods. “Of course. I was just saying it’s going to be another hot one today.”
He shufﬂes sideways, just as she’d known he would, towards the thermometer, which clings, by a spit-moistened sucker, to the outside of the window.
It is the third month of the drought. For ten days now the heat has passed 90ºF. There has been no rain—not for days, not for weeks, not for months. No clouds pass, slow and stately as ships, over the roofs of these houses.
With a metallic click, like that of a hammer tapping a nail, a black spot lands on the window, as if pulled there by magnetic force. Robert, still peering at the thermometer, ﬂinches. The insect has a striated underside, six legs splaying outwards. Another appears, at the other end of the window, then another, then another.
“Those buggers are back,” he murmurs.
Gretta comes to see, jamming on her glasses. Together, they peer at them, transﬁxed.
Swarms of red-backed aphids have, in the past week, been passing over the city. They mass in trees, on car windscreens. They catch in the hair of children coming home from school, they ﬁnd their way into the mouths of those crazy enough to cycle in this heat, their feet adhere to the sun-creamed limbs of people lying in their back gardens.
The aphids ﬂing themselves from the window, their feet detaching at the same moment, as if alerted by some secret signal, and they disappear into the azure sky.
Gretta and Robert straighten up, in unison, relieved.
“That’s them gone,” he says.
She sees him glance at the clock on the wall—a quarter to seven. At precisely this time, for more than thirty years, he would leave the house. He would take his coat off the peg by the door, pick up his bag, call goodbye to them all, shouting and squawking in the kitchen, and slam the door behind him. He always left at six forty-ﬁve, on the proverbial dot, no matter what was happening, whether Michael Francis was refusing to get out of bed, whether Aoife was kicking up a stink about Godknowswhat, whether Monica was trying to take over the cooking of the bacon. Not his department, all that, never was. Six forty-ﬁve, and he was out the door, gone.
He seems to feel a twitching in his limbs, she’s noticed, a kind of vestigial urge to set off, to get going, to be out in the world. Any minute now, she knows, he’ll be off to the newsagent’s.
With a hand on her bad hip, she pushes the chair out from the table with her foot, and Robert says, “I’ll just go round the corner and get the paper.
“Right you are,” she says, without looking up. “See you in a bit.”
Gretta sits herself down at the table. Robert has arranged everything she needs: a plate, a knife, a bowl with a spoon, a pat of butter, a jar of marmalade. It is in such small acts of kindness that people know they are loved. Which is, she reﬂects as she moves the sugar bowl to one side, surprisingly rare at their age. So many friends of hers feel overlooked or outgrown or unseen by their husbands, like furniture kept too long. But not her. Robert likes to know where she is at all times, he frets if she leaves the house without telling him, gets edgy if she slips away with-out him seeing, and starts ringing the children to question them on her whereabouts. It used to drive her crazy when they were ﬁrst married—she used to long for a bit of invisibility, a bit of liberty—but she’s used to it now. Gretta saws a hunk from the end of the loaf and slathers it with butter. She gets a terrible weakness in her limbs if she doesn’t eat regularly. She told a doctor, years ago, that she thought she had hypoglycemia, after reading about it in a Sunday newspaper. Which would have explained her need to eat quite so often, wouldn’t it? But the doctor hadn’t even looked up from his prescription pad. “No such luck, I’m afraid, Mrs. Riordan,” he’d said, the cheeky so-and-so, and handed her a diet sheet.
The children all love this bread. She makes an extra loaf if she’s going to visit any of them and takes it, wrapped in a tea towel. She’s always done her best to keep Ireland alive in her London-born children. The girls both went to Irish-dancing classes. They had to catch the bus all the way to a place in Cam-den Town. Gretta used to take a cake tin of brack or gingerbread with her to pass around to the other mothers—exiled like her from Cork, from Dublin, from Donegal—and they would watch their daughters dip up and dip down, tap their feet in time to the ﬁddle. Monica, the teacher had said after only three lessons, had talent, had the potential to be a champion. She always knew, the teacher had said, she could always spot them. But Monica hadn’t wanted to become a champion or to enter the competitions. I hate it, she’d whisper, I hate it when everyone looks at you, when the judges write things down. She’d always been so fearful, so cautious, so backwards in coming forwards. Was it Gretta’s fault, or were children born like that? Hard to know. Either way, she’d had to allow Monica to give up the dancing, which was a crying shame.
Gretta had insisted on regular Mass and communion for each of them (although look how that had turned out). They’d gone to Ireland every year for the summer, ﬁrst to her mother’s and then to the cottage on Omey Island, even when they’d got older and started to moan about the journey. When Aoife was little, she’d loved the excitement of having to wait for the tide to draw back off the causeway, revealing the slick, glassy sand, before they could walk over. “It’s only an island sometimes,” Aoife had said once, when she was about six, “isn’t that right, Mammy?” And Gretta had hugged her and told her how clever she was. She’d been a strange child, always coming out with things like that.
They were perfect, those summers, she thinks now, as she bites down into her second slice of bread. Monica and Michael Francis out roaming until all hours and, when Aoife came along, a baby in a crib to keep her company in the kitchen, before she went out to call the others in for their tea.
No, she couldn’t have done any more. And yet Michael Fran-cis had given his children the most English of English names. Not even an Irish middle name, she’d asked. She wouldn’t allow herself to think about how they were growing up heathen. When she’d mentioned to her daughter-in-law that she knew of a lovely Irish-dance school in Camden, not far from them, her daughter-in-law had laughed. In her face. And said—what was it?—is that the one where you’re not allowed to move your arms?
About Aoife, of course, the less said the better. She’d gone off to America. Never called. Never wrote. Living with some-body, Gretta suspects. Nobody has told her this; call it a mother’s instinct. Leave her alone, Michael Francis always says, if Gretta starts to question him about Aoife. Because she knows Michael Francis will know, if anyone does. Always as thick as thieves, those two, despite the age gap.
The last they’d heard from Aoife was a postcard at Christ-mas. A postcard. A picture of the Empire State Building on it. For the love of God, she’d shouted, when Robert handed it to her, is she not even able to stretch to a Christmas card, now? As if, she’d continued to shout, I’d never given her a proper upbringing. She’d spent the better part of three weeks sewing a communion dress for that child and she’d looked like an angel. Everybody said so. Who’d have thought then, as she’d stood on the church steps in her white dress and white lace ankle socks, veil ﬂ uttering in the breeze, that she’d grow up so ungrateful, so thoughtless that she’d send a picture of a building to her mother to mark the Christ Child’s birthday?
Gretta sniffs as she dips her knife into the red mouth of the jam pot. Aoife doesn’t bear thinking about. The black sheep, her own sister had called her that time, and Gretta had ﬂ own off the handle and told her to mind her bloody tongue, but she has to concede that Bridie had a point.
She crosses herself, says a swift novena for her youngest child under her breath, under the ever-watchful eye of Our Lady, who looks down from the kitchen wall. She cuts another slice of bread, watching the steam vanish into the air. She will not think about Aoife now. There are plenty of good things to focus on instead. Monica might ring tonight—Gretta had told her she’d be near the phone from six. Michael Francis had as good as promised to bring the children over this weekend. She will not think about Aoife, she will not look at the photo of her in the communion outﬁ t that sits on the mantelpiece, no, she will not.
After putting the bread back on the rack to air for Rob-ert, Gretta eats a spoonful of jam, just to keep herself going, then another. She glances up at the clock. Quarter past already. Rob-ert should be back by now. Maybe he bumped into someone and got talking. She wants to ask him will he drive her to the market this afternoon, after the crowds heading to the football stadium have dispersed? She needs a couple of things, some ﬂ our, a few eggs wouldn’t go amiss. Where could they go to escape the heat? Maybe a cup of tea at that place with the good scones. They could walk down the street, arm in arm, take the air. Talk to a few people. It was important to keep him busy: ever since the retirement, he can become brooding and bored if conﬁ ned to the house for too long. She likes to organize these outings for them.
Gretta goes out through the living room into the hall, opens the front door and walks out onto the path, sidestepping that rusting carcass of a bicycle Robert uses. She looks left, she looks right. She sees next door’s cat arch its back, then walk in mincing, feline steps along the wall, towards the lilac bush, where it proceeds to scratch its claws. The road is empty. No one about. She sees a red car caught mid-maneuver, farther up the road. A magpie keens and moans overhead, wheeling sideways in the sky, wing pointing downwards. In the distance, a bus grinds up the hill, a child trundles on a scooter along the pavement, someone somewhere turns on a radio. Gretta puts her hands on her hips. She calls her husband’s name, once, twice. The flank of the garden wall throws the sound back to her.
Stoke Newington, London
Michael has walked from Finsbury Park station. A mad decision in the heat, even at this time of day. But the roads had been choked when he’d emerged aboveground, the buses stranded in traffi c, wheels motionless on the softening tarmac, so he’d set off along the pavement, between the houses that seemed to transpire heat from their very bricks, making the streets into sweltering runnels through which he must toil. He pauses, panting and perspiring, in the shade of the trees that fringe Clissold Park. Removing his tie and freeing his shirt from his trousers, he surveys the damage wreaked by this neverending heatwave: the park is no longer the undulating green lung he has always loved. He has been coming here since he was a child: his mother would pack a picnic—hard-boiled eggs, bluish under their crumbling shells, water that tasted of Tupperware, a wedge of tea cake each; they would all be handed a bag to carry off the bus, even Aoife. “No shirkers,” his mother would say loudly, as they stood waiting for the door to open, making the rest of the bus look around. He can remember pushing Aoife in her striped buggy along the path by the railings, trying to get her off to sleep; he can remember his mother trying to coax Monica into that paddling pool. He recalls the park as a space of differing shades of green: the full emerald sweeps of grass, the plintering verdigris of the paddling pool, the lime-yellow of the light through the trees. But now the grass is a scorched ocher, the bare earth showing through, and the trees offer up limp leaves to the unmoving air, as if in reproach.
He draws in a breath through his nose and, realizing that the dry air burns his nostrils, takes a look at his watch. Just after five. He should get home.
It is the last day of term, the start of the long summer holidays. He has made it to the end of another school year. No more marking, no more classes, no more getting up and getting out in the mornings for six whole weeks. His relief is so enormous that it manifests itself physically, as a weightless, almost dizzy sensation at the back of his head; he has the sense he might stumble if he moves too quickly, so unburdened, so untethered does he feel. He sets off in the most direct route, straight across the burntout grass, out into the shadeless open, where the light is level and merciless, past the shut café where he longed to eat as a child but never did. Daylight robbery, his mother called it, unwrapping sandwiches from their grease-proof shrouds.
Sweat breaks out in his hairline, along his spine, his feet move jerkily over the ground and he wonders, not for the first time, how others might see him. A father, returning from his place of work to his home, where his family and his dinner will be waiting. Or a man overheated and sweaty, late, carrying too many books, too many papers, in his briefcase. A person past youth, hair thinning just a little at the crown, wearing shoes that need resoling and socks that require a darn. A man tormented by this heatwave because how is one supposed to dress for work in temperatures such as this, in a shirt and a tie, for God’s sake, in long trousers, and how is one meant to concentrate when the female inhabitants of the city walk about pavements and sit in offices in the briefest of shorts, their legs bare and brown and crossed against him, in narrow-strapped tops with their shoulders exposed, just the thinnest of fabrics separating their breasts from the unbearably hot air? A man hurrying home to a wife who will no longer look him in the eye, no longer seek his touch, a wife whose cool indifference has provoked in him such a slow-burning, low-level panic that he cannot sleep in his own bed, cannot sit easily in his own house.
The edge of the park is in sight now. He’s almost there. One more stretch of grass in full sun, then a road, then around the corner, then it’s his street. He can make out the roofs of his neighbors and, if he stretches on tiptoe, the slates of his house, the chimney pot, the skylight beneath which, he is sure, his wife will be sitting.
He swats a bead of moisture from his upper lip and switches his briefcase to the opposite hand. At the end of his street, there is a queue at the standpipe. Several of his neighbors, a lady from down the road and a few others he doesn’t recognize, straggle across the pavement and onto the road, empty drums at their feet. Some of them chat to each other, one or two wave or nod to him as he passes. The thought that he ought to offer to help the lady passes through his mind; he ought to stop, fill her drum for her, carry it back to her house. It would be the right thing to do. She is his mother’s age, perhaps older. He should stop, offer help. How will she manage otherwise? But his feet don’t hesitate in their movement. He has to get home, he can’t brook any further delay.
He unlatches his gate and swings it open, feeling as though it has been weeks since he last saw his home, feeling joy surge through him at the thought that he doesn’t have to leave it for six weeks. He loves this place, this house. He loves the black-and-white-tiled front path, the orange-painted front door, with the lion-faced knocker and the blue glass insets. If he could,
he would stretch himself skywards until he was big enough to embrace its red-gray bricks. The fact that he has bought it with his own money—or some of his own money, along with a large mortgage—never ceases to amaze him. That, and the fact it contains at this very moment the three people most precious to him in the world.
He unlocks the door, steps onto the mat, flings his bag to the floor and shouts, “Hello! I’m home!”
He is, for a moment, exactly the person he is meant to be: a man, returning from work, on the threshold of his home, about to greet his family. There is no difference, no schism, between the way the world might see him and the person he privately knows himself to be.
“Hello?” he calls again.
The house makes no answer. He shuts the door behind him and picks his way through the flotsam of bricks, dolls’ clothes and plastic teacups on the hall floor.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, author biography, discussion questions, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Instructions for a Heatwave, the mysterious and riveting new novel by Maggie O’Farrell.
1. The weather referenced in the novel’s title refers to the setting but also takes on symbolic or metaphorical significance. O’Farrell writes that “strange weather brings out strange behavior . . . [People] start behaving . . . not so much out of character but deep within it” (p. 103). What does she mean by this? Where do we see examples of this among the characters? How does the heat enhance or mirror the psychological drama of the story?
2. Consider the various examples of siblings in the story. What are their relationships like? Are there many similarities among their relationships? Are the siblings very alike as characters? What problems or tensions are evident among them, and what causes this?
3. In the opening scenes of the book, O’Farrell creates a sense of the routine and the mundane through a description of Gretta’s and Robert’s daily habits. It creates a sense of domesticity, but how does this sense of the routine also heighten the feeling of alarm over Robert’s disappearance and affect our reaction to the revelations at the story’s end?
4. When we are introduced to Michael Francis, we find him thinking that “[h]e is, for a moment, exactly the person he is meant to be . . . There is no difference . . . between the way the world might see him and the person he privately knows himself to be” (p. 13). What does the author mean by this? Where do we find discrepancies in the book between who a character really is and who others see the character to be? What causes this dissonance?
5. Examine the various representations of family and family structures in the book. Are they very similar? What does this tell us about marriage and family? About the characters? Most of the characters are, or have been, married. What were their reasons for marrying? How is marriage represented in the story? Are these unions mostly successful? What makes them successful or not?
6. Why is Michael Francis so upset by his wife’s haircut and enrollment in history classes?
7. Pregnancy and birth are recurring subjects in the book; the loss that can be associated with them is also explored. Evaluate the scenes that portray pregnancy and birth: Gretta’s births, Monica’s loss, Michael Francis’s children, and Aoife’s pregnancy. What message does the novel seem to present about birth?
8. Whose fault is it that Monica’s secret was found out? How did Monica respond to the secret being revealed to her husband? What is your reaction?
9. The characters reflect throughout the book on various events from their childhoods. What were some of the more memorable events, or events that had the greatest impact on them? What do these revelations seem to indicate about the impact of the past and its relationship to the present?
10. Consider the various conflicts in the novel. There is the problem of Robert’s disappearance, but other conflicts also begin to surface. Are these conflicts resolved? If so, how? How does the larger conflict unite or divide the characters? How does each character respond to conflict?
11. Evaluate the structure of the book. How does it accommodate point of view? Does any single standpoint dominate the story? How does this affect our response to the characters and our interpretation of the story? How would our understanding of the story have been different if it was told in only one point of view?
12. Evaluate the style of the book. Is O’Farrell’s language simple or difficult or complex? What about the sentence structures? How does her style of writing work to create a sense of portraiture, albeit with words?
13. Analyze O’Farrell’s use of flashbacks as a literary device. The characters are constantly recalling moments and events from the past. This allows us to know the unknowable. What insight does it give us into the characters? What does we learn about subjects such as memory, history, and truth?
14. Gretta tries to “keep Ireland alive” (p. 6) through trips to Ireland, Mass and communion, her cooking, and other customs. How do her children respond to her efforts? How does the book create a portrait of the complexities of tradition versus modernity? The characters are all living in different places–different countries, even. What might this say about contemporary living and the modern family?
15. Consider the sense of time in the book. The story takes place over only a few days, yet we get a sense of the entire history of each character from childhood to the present day. How does O’Farrell accomplish this?
16. Evaluate disappearance and estrangement as themes of the novel. While Mr. Riordan’s disappearance takes center stage, instances of disappearance and escape are not limited to his character. What other examples do we find in the novel? What causes these disappearances? What causes the divisions between the characters that grow into estrangement? How could this be helped?
17. What secrets do the characters keep from one another? Is one more surprising than another? If so, why? How do the characters react to the revelation of one another’s secrets?
18. Is Aoife’s disability identified? Why or why not? How does her disability affect how other characters perceive her? How does it affect her life? Does anyone try to help? How does it influence readers’ perception of her character?
19. What does the novel tell us about tragedy and the ways in which we face tragedies? Does each character respond in the same way? Does the way that the characters deal with tragedy change throughout the story?
20. How does this novel compare to O’Farrell’s other works? What are some of the recurring themes? Is their treatment similar? Are there recurring character types or plotlines?