Monday, August 5, 2013

Siblings, Parenthood, and a Dash of Illiteracy (book review): Instructions for a Heatwave (O'Farrell)

Overdue review (without rhymes, at least without intentional ones):

First things first, many thanks to the folks at Knopf/Random House for the advance reader's copy.  The overview of this book, the sixth novel from an Irish author in her early 40s, made me request a copy despite knowing I have an over-sized "to read" list.  Amidst a drought and heatwave in July 1976 London, the Riordan siblings gather following the news that their father, Robert, went out on a common errand and didn't return. 

Gretta is the matriarch, a woman who has spent the past decades being defined by her family role and battling some pressing emotional demons.  Eldest child Monica is a loyal daughter accustomed to being a mini-mom to her younger sister and currently trying to find her footing with a new husband and two resentful step-daughters.  Sole son Michael Francis, whose life plans were altered by a sudden pregnancy years prior, is watching his marriage dissolve and worrying over his two kids as their mother seems to pull away.  Youngest Aiofe is living in NYC, a much less steady life than her siblings and one constantly hampered by her long-kept secret that she cannot read (she seems to be severely dyslexic).  The novel explores their shared pasts and their various presents as they try to solve the mystery of their dad's departure. 

I've waivered between a 3.5 and 4 star review on this one.  I enjoyed seeing how the siblings shared roots translated into varied adult lives (but with connecting elements).  I wasn't as grabbed by some of the mysteries of the past, including those that led to the patriarch's disappearance.  I was most interested in Aiofe's story, including the haphazard way she copes with illiteracy in her job (or, more aptly, doesn't cope... she shoves papers in a file and ignores them).  I also enjoyed Michael Francis's interactions with his kids and wish there'd been more.  However, Monica bugged me...I appreciated her in her youth but less so in her adult-past and didn't care for her present step-kid drama...and I didn't care too much about the missing patriarch (the impetus for the action, but not really the focus) or the history or either Robert or Gretta. 

Writing style was solid...not enough to make me seek out the author's other works, but I would read more if the books stumbled into my pile. Read it for sibling relations and the various forms of parenting.  Don't come looking for much in the way of setting...could be set anyplace and the attempts to tie in history felt forced. 

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