Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

 Instructions for a Heatwave cover

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell was published in 2013 but the setting is that hot summer of 1976, mainly Highbury in London although the action does switch to Ireland near the end of the book. If you aren’t old enough to remember 1976 you might not know that there was a drought in the whole of the UK, the heat was incredible and the lack of rain meant that there were rules about how much water could be used, hosepipes were of course banned and gardeners emptied their bathwater onto their precious plants to try to keep them alive. Government posters encouraged couples to share baths and showers, that seemed very risque at the time.

Gretta Riordan’s husband Robert has gone missing, it seems he has just walked out and Gretta needs the help of her adult children to track him down. Monica, Michael Francis and Aoife aren’t exactly close, in fact the two sisters haven’t spoken to each other for three years and they all have their own problems but drop everything and make their way to London to find out what has happened to Robert.

Gretta is one of those very annoying women who conduct a constant running commentary on everything, has a conversation with her shoes as she tries to get them on. Basically if it comes into her head it finds its way out through her mouth. Her children have been a disappointment to her, despite her giving them a traditional Catholic upbringing they’ve all lapsed, got divorced or married non-Catholics. Her children eventually discover though that nothing is as it seems in Gretta’s own life.

This is just the second book by Maggie O’Farrell that I’ve read but I do like her writing style. However as a nit picker I was really annoyed that she has one of her characters going into a phone box a couple of times and phoning New York, from London once, and then again from Ireland. O’Farrell was born in 1972 so she may not realise that that sort of thing was just an impossibility back then.

When I lived close to London in 1978-80 I had to use a phone box to phone ‘home’ to Scotland and of course they only had slots for 2p or 10p. By the time you got your 10p in and it dropped into the money box you only had a matter of seconds before having to put the next 10p in. If you wanted to phone abroad in those days, even if you had a phone in your home you often couldn’t pick up the phone and dial, you had to book the call through an operator, and make sure you were at the phone at the correct time otherwise your line was used for the next person in the queue. If you didn’t have a phone you had to go to the Post Office HQ and phone from there. It was all very complicated compared with nowadays.

So I had to suspend my disbelief when one character phoned the US and I found that very annoying, I do like things in fiction to be possible, it’s just bad research really.

Mind you people can’t believe whenever I tell them that when I got married in 1976 there was a two year waiting list to get a phone line into your house and even then it was a ‘party’ line, which meant it was shared with other people in the same town, and if you lifted the receiver and they were already on their phone you could hear their conversation and had to wait for them to be finished. It was very frustrating.

Anyway, I’ve gone way off the subject. Instructions for a Heatwave is an enjoyable read, apart from that glaring impossibility in the storyline and I’ll definitely read more of Maggie O’Farrell’s books in the future.

6 thoughts on “Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

  1. Very interesting, Katrina. As we are in a drought in California and right now it is getting hot, this rings some bells although even after several years it is still not quite that bad. We have a wildfire in the area right now, although in the last couple of years we have been lucky not to have had bad fires around here.

    That is funny about not getting the long distance phone calling right. I try not to be picky about that kind of thing but if you know things were different it can be very irritating.

    • tracybham,
      We actually had a few moorland fires earlier in the year as May was very dry and quite hot, the last week has felt like November though and it has rained almost the whole week. We just aren’t used to extremes of temperature so can’t cope with the heat. That 1976 drought summer was over in Scotland by early August. We got married on the 2nd and I shivered in my wedding dress!

  2. Gosh, this was a trip down memory lane! I remember 1976 of course, and party lines and phone boxes…. 🙂

    A little disconcerting when we realise this is now history of course. But then, my little grandson can’t grasp the concept of a phone unless he can see the face of the person at the other end on a screen. Progress marches on!

    • Sandra,
      Yes I suppose for a lot of people 1976 is historical fiction, the author was born in 1972. I know that young people can’t believe that you had to put your finger in a hole and turn the dial on old phones. I still prefer that type.

  3. I try not to be too nit picky, but sometimes there are things you can’t ignore. I read this book getting on for three years ago and don’t remember noticing a problem about the phones, at least I didn’t mention it in my post on the book. I had mixed feelings about it – I didn’t like many of the characters and got infuriated at some of their behaviour – which meant that they were real enough. I thought the mix of present and past tense was a bit annoying – I’m not keen on using the present tense in any case. But, I did find it compelling reading, although I was a bit disappointed not to know more about Robert. Now, if I hadn’t written about it at the time I wouldn’t have remembered all that – just shows the value of writing it down!

    • Margaret,
      It does prove the value of a book blog or at least writing thoughts down somewhere. We probably read so many books that it can be very difficult to remember details, but it all comes back if you can read just a wee bit of what you thought at the time. Yes Robert was just a shadow and he would make an interesting character I think – maybe for another book.

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