Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - Maggie O'Farrell


Barnes and Noble:  "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. 


When I closed this novel I was stunned.  I can not articulate how satisfied, confused, angry, delighted...but most of all how completely astounded I was.  I immediately wanted reread it - an urge I have never felt before.  Usually I sit and revel in the feeling of finishing a good book.  This one had me in a frenzy!

This review will be very hard - I have to convince you to absolutely read this novel...without letting the smallest secret slip, or the ambiance of the novel will be ruined.  O'Farrell juxtaposed Iris, the typical modern day woman, with Esme, the typical modern day woman - who grew up in the early twentieth century.  Much of what we would consider given was absolutely taboo in Esme's time.  The biggest example?  Wanting to continue her education rather than get married.  A series of events, many of them catalyzed by Esme's unwillingness to conform led to her confinement in a mental institution.

During this period of time, families could force a woman into an asylum simply because they wanted to get rid of her.  This wasn't some third world thing or fiction - this really happened, and more often than one would think.  Want proof?  Google it - or watch The Changeling with Angelina Jolie, an accurate depiction of what women who didn't conform had to go through (accurate for Hollywood, anyway).
What Esme went through was only fiction in that her character isn't real.

Esme was sent to the institution due to her parents' intolerance of her actions - but she stayed there due to her sister's jealousy - and the unforgivable act that Kitty committed.  Through Esme's thoughts and Kitty's memories, the dark acts of this family is slowly revealed.  It is utterly captivating - my only criticism is that Iris's life and her own scandal are overshadowed by her grandparents' pasts.

The novel ends vaguely - you know what happened, but certain details are so vivid that you puzzle over the meanings.  Most of all though, you are left questioning Esme's state of mind - is she mentally imbalanced, or was her act deliberate, and cold-blooded?  After all, while she may not have originally been unbalanced, she spent 60 years forgotten by her family, heavily medicated, and alone.  And then there's Iris, and her messed up love life - the novel ends in the middle of a confession, leaving the reader wondering what her decision will be.

This novel is very dark, and very twisted - as it often is when a novel is written about a family.  O'Farrell mastered the effect of knowing just how much the reader really wants to know - after all a book like this doesn't have the same impact if every secret is revealed.  It worms its way into your thoughts there and stays there for weeks - maybe even months.  I would rank this book as a top 3 contender for books I've read this year, if not THE best book I have read this year.


This was one of my favourite books of the year, and quite possibly of the past decade.  Maggie O'Farrell perfected the balance of what to reveal and when, and what to just let peek out.


Again this felt like "modern gothic literature" although I still have yet to really understand what it means.  So if you like novels like The Thirteenth Tale and The Shadow of the Wind, this will suit your taste.   Any one who loves a good scandal and dark family secrets will also love this book.

The reader should also enjoy quick narrator and time changes since whose point of view and when it takes place changes at least every few pages.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for leaving a comment! You've totally made my day :D

I love talking to you guys, so I always respond to comments. Be sure to check back!