The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

The Vanishing Act of Esme LennoxBook Review
Title: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
Author:  Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Headline Review
Released: May 17, 2007
Pages: 277
ISBN-10: 9780755334803
ISBN-13: 978-0753308446
Stars:  3.5

I have a been a fan of contemporary British novelist Maggie O’Farrell since I read her gorgeous novel After You’d Gone (2000 – winner of the Betty Trask prize) quite a few years ago, followed by the equally charming and poignant, The Distance Between Us (2004 – winner of the Somerset Maugham award).  Her prose is exquisite and she writes about the relationships between sisters, loss and the psychological impact of loss with total truth and conviction.

I’m behind on reading her most recent works but finished reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006) a little over a week ago.  “O’Farrell’s fourth novel brilliantly illustrates her talent for gradually revealing her characters’ inner lives by jumping back and forth in time and juxtaposing different narrative points of view.”  The story investigates an appalling chapter in Britain’s history, the practice of disposing of “difficult” women by sending them to psychiatric institutions.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox reads like you’re watching a film flashing back and forth between the 1930s and the 1990s.  It is the compelling tale of two sisters, Esme and Kitty, and Kitty’s granddaughter Iris, who suddenly finds herself introduced to a great aunt she never knew she had and for whom she wants no responsibility, and who subsequently unravels the Lennox family’s long hidden secrets.  The story is told without chapters and morphs back and forth between Esme Lennox’s childhood in 1930s Edinburgh and Iris Lockhart’s present as a single woman who owns a vintage clothing shop, is carrying on an affair with a married man named Luke, and who harbors her own secrets about her relationship with her step-brother Alex.

Beautifully written in the present tense with an obvious love of language – many of the sections in this story start with a dash and are like pieces of a story cut out of another book and carefully pasted into this one in sequence – O’Farrell paints her settings with precise brush strokes of carefully chosen words, each one in its place to achieve maximum advantage.

At the beginning of Esme’s story, she and her family live in colonial Bombay. We soon realize that Esme is a precocious child, a dreamer who sees the world with very different eyes than those of her sister Kitty.  Esme is inquisitive and stubborn with a vivid fantasy life (she can hear trees crying) but has been labeled “impossible, disobedient, unteachable, a liar…”  Her mother ties her to a chair at dinner so that she won’t slip under the table to study all of the strange and interesting things going on beneath it.  In contrast, Kitty, who is six years older than Esme, is a normal, well-behaved girl who does what she’s told.  We learn that their baby brother Hugo and “ayah” Jamila died of typhoid at the same time when they were girls, an event which resulted in their father moving the family to Edinburgh.

In the 1990s, Iris is telephoned by a hospital official who declares that she is the contact family member of one Euphemia Esme Lennox, the sister that she didn’t know that her grandmother Kitty – currently living with Alzheimer’s – had.  Esme has been locked up in a psychiatric asylum for over 60 years and now the facility is closing down and its patients have to be relocated.  When suitable accommodations can’t be found, Iris ends up taking Esme (diagnosed with bipolar disorder) in to live with her in the house that was once owned by Esme’s father and gradually a sad and shocking mystery unfolds as the two women get to know each other.

We discover that Esme had been raped by a young man (Jamie Dalziel) whose parents her family had known, a man who was meant to court Kitty but who ended up preferring Esme’s direct but quirky personality instead.  Esme didn’t know she was pregnant when her parents, finally fed up with her tantrums and unpredictable behaviour, decided to have her committed to Cauldstone.  Months later, in the psychiatric hospital, Esme gives birth to a baby boy who she is allowed to hold for a few seconds before he is violently snatched away in an altercation that ends up with a distraught Esme in restraints.

In the meantime, in the flashbacks of Kitty’s life, we learn that she married a man named Duncan who was also a virgin and so uncomfortable and unknowledgeable about sex, that they never consummated their union.  One day Kitty goes to the hospital to visit Esme, and although she never actually sees her, she finds out about her baby.  Kitty, who wants a child so badly but can’t have one with her husband, asks her father for permission to raise Esme’s son and concocts a scheme to go south for a few months to “have a baby.”

Theirs is a slow burning, simple but cruel tale with no real climax.  All of the family secrets come undone when one day Iris takes Esme to see Kitty in the hospital she’s committed to, and instead of a proper denoument, the story ends abruptly and we are left to wonder exactly what happened between Esme and Kitty while they were alone together and Iris and Alex were outside in the car sharing their own revelation.  While I took pleasure in reading the prose in this tragic story, and O’Farrell maintained an elevated level of tension throughout, the ending was unsatisfactory and just a bit too abstract for my full appreciation.

This will not, however, deter me from reading O’Farrell’s more recent work, The Hand That First Held Mine (2010), winner of the 2010 Costa novel award, and Instructions For A Heatwave (available February 28, 2013) because I enjoy literary psychological suspense and Maggie O’Farrell is a master.

The Good Woman (A Brennan Sisters Novel) by Jane Porter

The Good WomanBook Review
Title: The Good Woman (A Brennan Sisters Novel)
Author:  Jane Porter
Publisher: Berkley Trade
Released: September 4, 2012
Pages: 368
ISBN-10: 0425253007
ISBN-13: 978-0425253007
Stars:  4.5

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Jane Porter’s contemporary women’s fiction.  I’ve read almost every book in that line (she also writes for Harlequin) that she’s written.  So I was really excited to hear that she’d written a new series about the Brennan Sisters that’s been published by her new publisher, Berkley Trade.  The Good Woman is the first novel in that trilogy.

The first thing that struck me about The Good Woman is its exquisite cover – the model who was chosen to represent leading character Meg Roberts is exceptionally lovely and beautifully photographed – as well as its tag line, “sisters always know…”  I have two sisters who are among my best friends in the world so that phrase really rings true for me.

The Good Woman is the story of Mary Margaret Brennan Roberts, a.k.a. Meg, who on the outside would appear to have it all.  She’s married to a successful architect (Jack), has three children (Tessa, JJ and Gabi), a gorgeous home, drives a Lexus SUV, and has a great job as a publicist working at a Napa Valley winery called Dark Horse for a very kind, warm and ruggedly handsome boss, vintner Chad Hallahan.  We just know something’s going to happen between Meg and Chad, but it’s the way Porter reveals how her heroine feels, why she ends up doing what she does, and how she deals with the consequences that is remarkable.  Porter writes with such a truthful and authentic voice about the issues that women deal with, that her stories are always completely relatable.

Meg is the oldest child of a large Irish-American family.  She’s smart, ambitious and a perfectionist with control issues, but she’s also a faithful wife and loving mother who constantly makes the right decisions.  Her father Tommy is a sixth generation San Francisco firefighter and her mother Marilyn is battling breast cancer.  Meg’s brother Tommy is also a firefighter and he and his wife Cass are struggling with long-term fertility issues.  Meg is closest to her sister Kit, a Catholic school English teacher, who has been with her boyfriend Richard for 10 years and has never received a proposal.  Her youngest sister Sarah is married to professional baseball player, Boone (who has had an affair on her but she’s stayed with him), while Kit’s fraternal twin Brianna is the family wild child who has never married and is an activist who works in the Congo in Africa.

The sisters meet up with their mother for their annual Brennan Sisters’ Getaway at the family beach house in Capitola and it’s not long before Brianna and Meg are at each other’s throats.  They don’t get along and constantly rub each other the wrong way.  Meg’s relationship with her sisters is both rewarding and realistic and sometimes the family’s gossiping astounds her.  However, her family dynamics are an important part of her life and we see how they perceive Meg and how her decisions impact them too.

Years of being “the good woman” has left Meg feeling burned out, empty and lonely as she finds herself disconnected from a distant Jack.  A perimenopausal woman in her forties, Meg wants sex all the time, her husband barely wants it at all, and when they do have sex, it’s wham, bam, thank you ma’am, and Jack doesn’t seem to care that Meg never has an orgasm.  There’s no touching, no lingering, and no intimacy and Meg is not happy or satisfied.  However, rather than try to talk to her husband about it, she thinks that she has to just suck it up and deal with it, and that her role in life is simply to look after everyone else.  But we women know that you can only live like that for so long before something has to change.  And when it does for Meg, the shit really hits the fan.

Meg decides to attend the London Wine Trade Fair with her boss, Chad, who over late night business dinners and multiple glasses of wine, ends up revealing his deep-rooted desire for her.  At first she’s determined not to give in to her feelings for him, but ultimately she just can’t, and “the good woman” Meg becomes the wanton adulteress who risks losing her entire family because of her reckless and irreversible decision.

I love that Jane has brought up the issue of oral sex in Meg’s story and the fact that some men don’t seem to like to reciprocate although they certainly enjoy receiving it.  Every woman I know, including me, wouldn’t want to be with a man who wasn’t into oral sex, that’s for sure!

Infidelity is also an issue that has touched most of us at some time in our lives and as a woman in her late forties, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about men screwing around on the women that I know, and I’ve been cheated on as well, so it’s an issue that’s very close to the surface of my emotions.  In The Good Woman, Jane Porter writes about what drives a woman who would never be suspected of it to cheat on her husband, and rather than be angry with her, I found that I couldn’t blame Meg for her actions at all.  I cried while reading her story, but what I was amazed by was how she chose to accept the consequences of her actions and decided to fight to keep her family together after realizing that she really was meant to be a good woman after all.  That decision is something that I think that only married women with children can truly understand.

The Good Woman is a captivating page turner and one that I finished reading very quickly because I didn’t want to do anything else but read it.  Fortunately for Porter’s readers, the next book in the trilogy, The Good Daughter (available February 5, 2013), will focus on Meg’s sister Kit.  I’m fortunate to have received an ARC copy of it, so I’ll be reading it right away.  I think that the third book will be The Good Wife, but the sister’s story that I want to read the most is Brianna’s…because I’m more of a wild child than a good woman.