Monday, March 16, 2009
Review: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell
Reasons for reading: read several good reviews of it; second Sisters-themed book for the Themed Reading Challenge
Description: "In the middle of tending to the everyday business at her vintage-clothing shop and sidestepping her married boyfriend’s attempts at commitment, Iris Lockhart receives a stunning phone call: Her great-aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, is being released from Cauldstone Hospital—where she has been locked away for more than sixty-one years. Iris’s grandmother Kitty always claimed to be an only child. But Esme’s papers prove she is Kitty’s sister, and Iris can see the shadow of her dead father in Esme’s face. Esme has been labeled harmless—sane enough to coexist with the rest of the world. But she's still basically a stranger, a family member never mentioned by the family, and one who is sure to bring life-altering secrets with her when she leaves the ward. If Iris takes her in, what dangerous truths might she inherit? "
First line: "Let us begin with two girls at a dance."
My thoughts: This is a really well-written book, told from three very different points of view. Iris is a typical modern girl who receives some astonishing news. Esme seems fairly sane, but she's been locked up for 6 decades - her mind slips into the past frequently, but she seems to have a grip on the present. And Kitty is mired in dementia - her thoughts flit between events that happened 60 years ago and how she's feeling about biscuits at this very second.
The premise of Iris discovering she has a relative she never knew existed is enough of a story, but between Esme and Kitty, we learn about 60 years of lies that have brought us to this point - Iris living in an apartment that used to be the Lennox family home in Edinburgh, Kitty in a nursing home, and Esme in the asylum.
I love Scotland and really enjoyed the Edinburgh setting - I could picture quite a lot of the scenery. It was interesting to see it from Esme's point of view after 60 years - she recognized a lot of the buildings, for example, but the road network was very different.
I shared Iris' fascination with the fact that in Esme's day, a woman could basically be committed if her father or other man in her life wished it. This theme reminded me of another book I really enjoyed, An Inconvenient Wife by Megan Chance, which took place about 50 years earlier, but was largely about women being called mad by men because they were embarrassing. Esme definitely was unconventional, but it overall it was hard to tell if she was actually mad.
The verdict: A haunting tale of how lies and betrayal can turn loving sisters into enemies, as well as the story of how a family changes over time, but genetics are always there to bind them together.