Book Review: Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell

Instructions for a Heatwave coverTitle: Instructions for a Heatwave
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
ISBN: 9780385349406
Pages: 304
Release Date: June 18, 2013
Publisher: Knopf
Genre: Literary Fiction
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4.5 out of 5


When Gretta Riordan’s husband leaves the house to grab the paper and doesn’t come back, she doesn’t think too much about it immediately. But as the day progresses and he doesn’t return, she becomes concerned, even more so when she discovers that he’s emptied their bank account. Gretta calls her three children, Michael, Monica, and Aoife, and they return home, intent on discovering what happened to their father.


While the plot of Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave might sound like it’s a mystery novel, it’s actually a story of self-discovery and coming to terms with the truths that are ever present in our lives. The book focuses on Gretta and her three children as they try to understand Robert’s disappearance. They each return home, to a place where they were the best and worst versions of themselves, unsure of how to pursue the once-easy dynamics of family now that they know each other’s secrets. But all has not been revealed; there are more hidden truths beneath the surface, and as they learn about each other and themselves, they each grow and change, accepting what life throws at them.

None of the characters in Instructions for a Heatwave are easy, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t likeable. Each is undergoing their own personal turmoil at the moment; they’ve each made mistakes in their lives they don’t quite know how to fix. They’re flawed, but entirely realistic, and they’ll each leap off the page for readers. Though all the characters are interesting, it’s Aoife, with her shameful secret, that really captured my heart. It’s fascinating to watch the family dynamics as they unfold; O’Farrell writes the complicated relationships of siblings so incredibly well.

The atmosphere of Instructions for a Heatwave is just as important as the characters or story. The book is set during a heatwave in Britain that occurred in 1976; O’Farrell describes the heat so vividly that it’s hard to not start fanning yourself while reading. What’s more, it influences what each of the characters do in various ways. From Robert’s disappearance on, these characters act in ways they normally wouldn’t, when cooler heads would prevail. But because it’s so hot and unbearable, they’re more impulsive and reckless, and thus inevitably more interesting.

Though it would make a wonderful read any time of the year, Instructions for a Heatwave is a great summer novel. The atmosphere and characters are so well done, and O’Farrell keeps the tension behind Robert’s disappearance present through the novel. It’s one of those rare books that balances each narrative device, plot point, and character perfectly, such that readers will be absolutely mesmerized by this book from beginning to end.

Other books by Maggie O’Farrell:

The Hand that First Held Mine

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  1. This one is new to me, and it sounds fantastic. Great review! I’ll be adding it to my wish list.

  2. Beth Hoffman says:

    I put this book on my list the very first time I read its synopsis and plan to read it while on vacation. You’re review is excellent.

  3. Excellent review! Another book to add to my to-read list. Most of the books I’ve read recently are due to your amazing reviews, thank you so much. For example, I just wrapped up Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother, which I loved, and I’m currently reading Dorothy Koomson’s The Woman He Loved Before. Also, thank you for keeping your reviews spoiler-free. 🙂 Keep up the great work.


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