Review 1536: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

I’m late to discover Maggie O’Farrell, but better late than never. I’ve read a few books by her now, and she just keeps getting better and better.

Iris Lockhart is contacted by a mental hospital, which wants to find out if she can offer a home to her great aunt, Esme, who has been incarcerated there for more than 60 years. The problem is that Iris has never heard of Esme and believes her grandmother to be an only child.

Her mother now lives in Australia and has never heard of Esme, either. When Iris tries to discuss Esme with her grandmother, Katherine, who is suffering from Alzheimers, she gets a fractured response that implies Esme is her sister. In particular, she says, “She wouldn’t let go of the baby.”

Through third-person narration from Iris’s point of view, Esme’s stream of consciousness memories, and Katherine’s more fractured ones, we learn how it came to pass that vibrant and unconventional Esme was abandoned in the hospital from the age of 16. Iris is shocked to learn that Esme was incarcerated for such outrages as insisting on keeping her hair long and dancing in her dead mother’s clothes. She learns that at the time women could be committed on the signature of one doctor.

This is a shattering, sad story about a girl whose life is stolen because she doesn’t fit in. It is spellbinding as it draws you along to learn Esme’s story. This is also fascinating tale about how sisterly love turns to jealousy and anger.

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9 thoughts on “Review 1536: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

  1. Cathy746books July 30, 2020 / 10:17 am

    This is my favourite O’Farrell by far, I just love it. Such a devastating story.

  2. ilovedays July 31, 2020 / 8:12 am

    Do you think it’s a realistic portrayal of the way women’s identities were held hostage at the time? Might be a good read for young women who don’t remember any of that…I still remember when women couldn’t have their own checking accounts in some places without approval of their husbands or guardians.

    • whatmeread July 31, 2020 / 9:29 am

      That wasn’t that long ago. My mother had problems with it when my parents got divorced. I think that probably not many women were incarcerated for such slight faults, but it was still legal, and maybe many were that we don’t know about.

  3. Davida Chazan August 1, 2020 / 12:23 am

    Until I read Hamnet, this was my favorite of hers – and actually, the first of hers that I read. Then I started reading her backlist and making sure I read everything she published afterwards. I guess I’m a Maggie O’Farrell addict! Lovely review!

    • whatmeread August 1, 2020 / 1:16 pm

      That gives me something to look forward to, because Hamnet is the next book on my pile.

      • Davida Chazan August 2, 2020 / 12:07 am

        They’re all wonderful. Even her memoir is amazing – disturbing, but I cried so hard at the end, and it was written so beautifully. She’s really a wonderful writer.

  4. Helen August 1, 2020 / 12:56 pm

    I’ve only read Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell and didn’t really enjoy it, but I would like to try more of her books. This one sounds good – maybe I would like it better.

    • whatmeread August 1, 2020 / 1:17 pm

      I haven’t read Hamnet yet, but this is my favorite so far.

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