Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Instructions For A Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell

Instructions For A Heatwave begins on 15 July 1976, and takes place over the following four days. The Riordan family is living through an unprecedented heatwave, with the accompanying drought and water shortages. It’s the third month of incredible heat and no rain – routine in Australia, where I’m reading, but a bit fucked for the characters in London. The heatwave, it turns out, is an obvious but well-written metaphor for the pressure cooker situation the Riordan family is about to find themselves in…

Instructions For A Heatwave - Maggie O'Farrell - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The matriarch of the family, Gretta, thinks that it’s any ordinary day: her husband wakes up, goes out to get the paper… except he never returns. His disappearance is the catalyst for a family reunion, of sorts, as Gretta and her grown children come together to try and figure out what the heck has happened.

Each of the Riordan siblings has their own secrets and foibles that the others know little, or nothing, about (and Gretta’s hiding a few things under her hat, too). Michael Francis is a history teacher whose marriage is failing. Monica has two stepdaughters who hate her, and she’s questioning the choices she’s made to wind up in the role of would-be Stepford Wife. Aiofe – the most interesting character, to me – has always been the black sheep, which has made it easier to hide her debilitating dyslexia from everyone. She can’t read, and nobody knows but her.

Even though Instructions For A Heatwave is predicated on solving the mystery of the father’s disappearance, I found myself far more invested in whether Aiofe’s secret would be outed. Dad’s disappearing act ends up being somewhat beside the point. I still can’t figure out whether that was O’Farrell’s intention or not, but whatever the case, the complexities of these grown sibling relationships, and the difficulties of Aiofe’s hidden disability, are the most interesting aspect of the novel.

It’s particularly impressive how O’Farrell manages to unspool all of these narrative threads without getting them tangled. With interweaving backstories and multiple geographies (even though the family is based in London, they have carefully tended to their Irish roots, and Aiofe had “flounced off” to New York three years before the narrative timeline began), you’d expect things to become muddled, but O’Farrell does a remarkable job at guiding the reader through.

In real life, O’Farrell had some interesting things to say about the role of family in Instructions For A Heatwave, and fiction more generally:

In any home, every member of the family has a unique relationship with every other. Five people, locked together for an entire lifespan, add up to a complex knot of personalities, clashes, allegiances and schisms. Nobody knows you quite like a sibling or parent, and yet nobody is liable to misunderstand you with such conviction.

This is the endless fascination of family life, the desire to simultaneously run home and run away. Instructions For A Heatwave is a novel that revolves around the oxymoron of those urges…

Novels about family are sometimes referred to as ‘domestic fiction’; I refute this categorisation as it carries the implication that these are somehow small novels, dealing with minor human concerns. The family is far from a ‘small’ subject.

Maggie O’Farrell on Instructions For A Heatwave

Instructions For A Heatwave is my first novel by O’Farrell, and it would seem (from a glance at the blurbs of her others) that it has all the hallmarks of her fiction: family secrets, simmering resentments, and emotional claustrophobia. It slots into the middle of the Venn diagram of the “popular” and the “literary”, offering a rich family drama with a curious mystery to draw you in.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Instructions For A Heatwave:

  • “Let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t pay much for it.” – Annie V.
  • “More should have been focused on Aoife. She was the really interesting person in the book. Although, I never figured out how to say her name” – Carol Miller
  • “An awful book. Irish twee story, only short of a few leprechauns. The mist annoying book I’ve read in years.” – Caroline Ryan
  • “I lived through the summer of ’76 and it was glorious but you would never think so from the characters in this book. The characters in this book are all self absorbed and incredibly unattractive, i couldn’t sympathise with any of them.” – MRS A L MASON


  1. I’m a fan of O’farrell and have read all bar one of her books. This wasn’t my favourite but I wonder if I missed some element if the narrative. Hope yiu read more by her – I’d recommend The Vanishing Act of esme Lennox.

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