Way back in 2007, I added The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell to my TBR (to be read) list after reading many rave reviews of the novel. Several years ago, I added it to my Kindle, and I finally got to read it this month when my book group chose it (one of my suggestions – I now suggest only books already on my shelves!). It was worth the wait – an intriguing, compelling novel that everyone in my book group enjoyed (a rarity!).
The novel opens with scenes from the childhood of a young girl named Esme, part of a British family living in India. Esme is a bright, energetic, and enthusiastic little girl, always curious and full of life. Her mother sees things differently. She just wants Esme to behave and act like a young lady. One of Esme’s earliest memories is of being tied to a chair with her mother’s scarf, to keep her seated through the meal.
The next we see of Esme, she is an older woman, in her 70’s, looking through the bars of her room at a psychiatric hospital. Esme is confused by the unusual activity in the residential facility; it is being closed down, and most of its residents are being released. Esme has spent more than 60 years of her life locked away here.
Meanwhile, down the road from the hospital, we are introduced to Iris, a lively woman who owns a second-hand shop in the Scottish town. She is having lunch with her stepbrother, Alex, and enjoying a spirited conversation. Iris has never married, and is happy being a single woman, running her business, and not letting her affairs with men (the current one married) ever get too serious.
These two very different worlds collide when Iris receives a phone call from the psychiatric facility, asking her to come pick up her great-aunt Esme. Iris never even knew she had a great-aunt; her grandmother always said she was an only child. The facility is quite insistent that Iris come there, so she finds herself face-to-face with the great-aunt she’s never known, taking her home with her when the “care home” she was placed in turns out to be unfit.
Although Iris is determined to find a new care home for Esme, the older woman and her great-niece get to know each other while spending the weekend together. Esme doesn’t seem crazy to Iris, and Iris wants to know all about her history. The two of them are actually alike in many ways, and have similar free-spirited ways of thinking.
The novel continues, alternating between Iris and Esme getting to know each other in the present day and flashbacks to both their childhoods. Esme’s story in particular is only gradually revealed, including how she ended up in the psychiatric hospital and the events leading up to that fateful day. The modern and past stories intertwine, revealing long-held family secrets and lies. The story is augmented by disjointed, random memories from Kitty, Esme’s sister, who has advanced Alzheimer’s and is living in a nursing home.
All of the members of my book group universally enjoyed this intricate, fascinating story, and it sparked some interesting discussions. In fact, it got one of our highest ratings, an average of 7.7 out of 10. This novel delves into issues of women’s rights and the role of women through the decades (let’s just say we were all glad we were born when we were!), while also exploring the complexities of family relationships. It’s an engaging and unique story that moves along at a rapid pace and easily kept my attention, as I was eager to learn all of Esme’s secrets. Now I want to read other novels by Maggie O’Farrell.
245 pages, Mariner Books/Harcourt