Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

The February book club selection for Books on Main, the book club here at the library, was The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell. I absolutely LOVED it! The story takes place in Scotland and centers around Iris, the owner of a vintage dress shop with a complicated and complex personal life. Iris' world is rendered a little off kilter when she is informed that she is the next of kin of her great aunt Esme Lennox, who is being released from an asylum after being locked away for 61 years. The most surprising thing about this is that Iris didn't even realize she has a great aunt. Esme is the sister of Iris' grandmother, Kitty. However, Kitty has advanced Alzheimer's Disease and Iris can not question her grandmother about this mysterious relative.

But that is not even the most interesting part of this multi-layered story. As Iris begins to unravel Esme's story, she begins to uncover layers of secrets within her own family. Not the least of which is that Esme was locked away mainly because she was an unconventional woman during a time in British history when it was extremely unacceptable, especially among the upper classes.

Maggie O'Farrell handles the complex telling of this story very deftly. The story alternates between the voices of Iris, Esme and Kitty and also between the past and present. Through these vignettes of memory, the author slowly unveils the story of these two very different sisters and how Esme comes to be hospitalized and what happens to each of them after that event. As a reader, I enjoyed the slow unfolding of the story as the layers where peeled away. And each piece of the puzzle led to a wonderful understanding of the characters as a whole.

What fascinated me the most about this book is that Maggie O'Farrell states in an interview that she was inspired to write this story based on actual British history. Apparently, until the 1950s it was possible for a man to commit his wife or daughter to an asylum with just a signature from a doctor. Women were locked away for reasons as nebulous as "taking long walks", refusing offers of marriage, accidental pregnancies, refusing to cut their hair and most shockingly one girl was diagnosed as insane because she was "caught dancing before a mirror, dressed in her mother's clothes". Amazing, but true! O'Farrell further states that she's long been interested in what happens to "non-conforming" women in different points in history. In the 16th and 17th century they would have been burned as a witch, more recently they were locked away in asylums. It isn't hard to think about women today in fundamentalist Muslim families who are murdered in "honor killings" for "non-conforming" behavior that brings shame to their families. O'Farrell maintains that in The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, "Iris and Esme are essentially the same person and it's just the luck of the draw that Iris was born in a time when that didn't happen to her". Let's all be thankful we live in the time and place that we do.

I LOVED The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. I would give it 4 Stars.


  1. I loved this book as well. I thought that the author constructed this book in a very clever way. The reader spends time in the thoughts of several of the characters, one of which has Alzheimer's... That can get confusing, but it just adds to the reality of that disease. Clues are given as to the reason Esme is left in the institution, but the author allows us to put it all together, which is very enjoyable for the reader!

    I listed to the audio version of this book, and it was beautifully narrated with just the right accent. I seldom listen to a book twice, but I did with this one.

    Pam, you have a knack for choosing excellent book club books! I am sorry I had to miss the discussion... bet it was a good one.

  2. Madge-

    You're right about O'Farrell leaving clues thoughout the book about Esme's hospitalization. She did do a great job of that. The book club discussion was very lively and there was great talk about Esme's situation in the context of history. We missed you and are looking forward to you rejoining us this month.

    And thanks so much for your kind words about the book club. But I must admit I've picked a couple of doozies (is that a word?) over the years. I'm just glad that most lend themselves well to discussion.


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