“Instructions for a Heatwave” by Maggie O’Farrell


“Instructions for a Heatwave” by Maggie O’Farrell (2013) – 304 pages




There actually was a huge heat wave in London in the summer of 1976, the time when this novel is set.  “Instructions for a Heatwave” is a family drama told mostly from a Catholic housewife’s point of view.  The member of the family on whom the novel focuses changes frequently, but details about meal preparation, Catholic religion, and clothing items are always at the forefront. 

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.

The above thoughts are those of the mother Gretta Riordan, but the same kind of prosaic details arise whoever the focus is.  For readers who care about this kind of homemaking detail this is fine, but for me, no way, get me out of here.  The novel also deals with Catholic issues from 1976 which seem today to me, a non-Catholic, ancient. 

Recently I read “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson which also is a family novel.  That story totally won me over perhaps because it bypasses most of these mundane everyday details of family life for a more historical perspective. 

“Instructions for a Heatwave” deals with relationships within the family unit rather than what’s happening outside. Amidst the details, there are interesting stories.  The youngest daughter Aoife is the black sheep.  She flunked her classes and is considered a free spirit by the rest of the family.  We learn that due to dyslexia she cannot read which causes her a lot of problems.  Each of the family has his or her issues, and the measure is always within the family.  The story begins in London and travels to Ireland as the family searches for the missing father. 

At one point the mother thinks about her bunions.  As is nearly obligatory in modern novels, we then get a list of various toe ailments.  If I wanted to read this kind of stuff, I’d go to Facebook.

Details are a part of every novel.  If we are interested in the details, they help us appreciate the story.  If we are bored by the details, they will detract from our interest in the story.  The details do not reflect the quality of writing, but some writers can make you interested in subjects that had always bored you before.  That did not happen for me with “Instructions for a Heatwave”.

I’m still bored with homemaking and religion.

8 responses to this post.

  1. I’m not too keen on that type of mundane things either.
    Maggie O’Farrell is an uneven writer. Her books are hit or miss for me. I don’t think this is one I’d like to read but I really liked The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.


    • Hi Caroline,
      This was my first Maggie O’Farrell; I could see that she could write an excellent novel, but this one wasn’t it for me. I’ve heard other good things about “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox’.


  2. I was enthusiastic about The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, the only book I’ve read by Maggie O’Ferrell. It had a great premise and was an artfully told story. I might be interested in reading about keeping house in the 1970s: questions of buttermilk, yes; bunions, probably not. It is amazing how sometimes the most arcane topics can be made interesting in the right hands. I will look for this one, thanks for your review.


    • Hi Charlotte,
      There are many, many people in the world who will admire and love ‘Instructions’, just not me. My review should not deter anyone from reading it. Just because the details did not interest me, others will react differently.


  3. For a refreshing review of O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave – and not too dissimilar to the one above – click on http://davidmurph.wordpress.com


  4. I crossed her off my list of authors to read a long time ago. Irish moaning, no thanks!


  5. Hi Lisa,
    Funny you should mention it today. O’Farrell’s new novel ‘This Must Be the Place’ appeared on a couple of ‘Best of Year’ lists for 2016, so I requested it from the library. Then I remembered I had read ‘Instructions’ earlier and went back to my review. After reading your comment I cancelled my request. 🙂


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