Review 1633: The Distance Between Us

Jake, a Hong Kong Brit who has never been to Europe, is out with friends on Chinese New Year when they are caught in a crush. His girlfriend Melanie’s best friend is killed, and Melanie is gravely injured. Doctors say she will not live, so when she asks him to marry him, he reluctantly agrees even though he has only known her for four months. Of course, she does not die. The next thing he knows, he is in England staying at her parents’ house, and her mother is planning a formal ceremony for them. Having always wanted to find out about his Scottish father, he leaves for Scotland.

Stella’s too close relationship with her sister Nina is one she has to escape from sometimes. The roots of this lie in a horrible incident years ago. On one of her escapes, she takes a job at a hotel in Scotland.

This novel travels back and forth to relate incidents in both Jake and Stella’s lives and in the lives of their parents and grandparents. O’Farrell has a way with making you care about her characters as well as a gift for lyrical prose. This is another great book for her, and thus for her readers.

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Review 1627: Hamnet

Hamnet explores the impulses that went into the writing of Hamlet as well as important moments in the marriage of Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare. It focuses on grief from the death of a beloved son.

The similarity in the name of Shakespeare’s son to that of his most famous protagonist is obvious, but I wasn’t aware until this book came out that they were essentially the same name. O’Farrell’s newest book parallels scenes from the beginning of Shakespeare’s relationship with Anne (called Agnes in the book) with the hours leading up to Hamnet’s death from bubonic plague. Then she deals with the aftermath.

At first, I wasn’t sure how much I liked all the invention going on, as O’Farrell depicts Agnes as a sort of wild child/wise woman. Then I reflected that little is known of the couple and that I was reading fiction, after all. I don’t like it when a fiction writer knowingly distorts the truth, but O’Farrell stuck fairly closely to the few known facts. The result I found extremely touching. I admit that my initial reluctance to buy in changed to my being completely rapt. This is a deft, sensitive story that concentrates mostly on Agnes’s feelings and reactions.

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Review 1536: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

Best of Ten!
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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Review 1492: Instructions for a Heatwave

I’m really liking Maggie O’Farrell. I don’t know why it took me so long to try her.

In 1976 London, the country is experiencing a record-breaking heatwave. (Of course, those of us who have lived in Texas don’t think 90° F is that hot.) One morning, Gretta Riordan’s newly retired husband doesn’t return from his trip to the store. When her grown children go to the police, they find out he’s taken money from the bank account and say he is not, therefore, a missing person.

This event brings the rest of the family together for the first time in three years, which was when Aoife, the youngest sibling, left for New York after her sister, Monica, broke with her. Aoife still doesn’t understand the reason for the break.

Monica herself is not happy. After her first marriage, to Joe, broke up, she married Peter. Peter has two daughters who hate her. She hates the old house in Gloucester where she lives, in which Peter will allow her to change nothing.

Michael Francis loves his wife and children but feels his wife is becoming distant. It takes a while to find out why.

All, even Gretta, have secrets, which must come out before relationships can be healed.

O’Farrell writes luminous prose and understands the complexities of people. This is a lovely book.

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Review 1463: This Must Be the Place

Daniel Sullivan is about to leave Ireland for a business trip when he catches a segment of a radio broadcast more than 20 years old. He hears the voice of Nicola Janks, his old girlfriend. When he learns she died in 1986, the year he last saw her, he becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her, fearing he was responsible for her death.

Unfortunately, he is unable to explain this concern to his wife, Claudette. Instead, she hears from his family about his erratic behavior. He is supposed to visit his 90-year-old father in Brooklyn but stays only a few minutes before abruptly leaving to visit his children from his first marriage.

These are the first events in a series that will change his life. But O’Farrell is interested in more than these events. In chapters ranging back and forth over 30 years and switching point of view among the characters, she tells about the lives of many of them, of Claudette, the reclusive ex-movie star; of Daniel; of Daniel’s children and Claudette’s children; of Daniel’s mother; even of some of the novel’s secondary characters.

I came late to O’Farrell and so far have only read two books by her, but I’ve enjoyed them immensely. She catches you with her complex plots but keeps you with her characterizations.

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Review 1346: After You’d Gone

Cover for After You'd GoneAlice Raike takes an unplanned trip from London to North Berwick to see her family. After she arrives, she sees something horrible that makes her return immediately to London. Later that evening, her mind in an uproar, she steps off a curb into oncoming traffic and ends up in the hospital in a coma.

In vignettes shifting in time and point of view, After You’d Gone tells the story of Alice’s life and of her family’s secrets. This novel is powerful, and it had me in tears by the end. O’Farrell slowly peels off layer after layer to reveal the truths of Alice’s life.

I don’t know what else I can say about this novel except I loved it.

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