“Instructions for a Heatwave” by Maggie O’Farrell is a powerfully written novel about a semi-dysfunctional Irish family living in England during the scorching heatwave of 1976.

The Riordan family experiences their own disaster during that July heatwave. One morning Gretta, the Irish Catholic matriarch of the family, watches as her husband of four decades goes out for the paper, then simply disappears.

Gretta later discovers that he has cleaned out the bank account and taken his passport. She had thought they were happy – that Robert, a bank manager, was enjoying his retirement.

The author introduces the family characters as they interact, allowing the reader to see the family dynamics.

Monica, favorite of mother Gretta, is involved in a difficult marriage with an older man. Michael Francis, the guilty, anxious, one, is on the brink of divorce, and Aoife, the youngest child, is in her 20s has relocated to New York City.

Gretta is gregarious and her behavior in certain situations, exaggerated. They have forgotten that their calm, unassuming husband and father, Robert, ever had a life apart from them.

 When Robert suddenly disappears, Gretta calls Monica. Monica, however, is preoccupied with the death of a family pet, certain that her two step-daughters will blame her for that and hate her even more than they already do.

Gretta decides not to tell Monica about her father. That evening Gretta calls Michael Francis. He is a history teacher trapped in what he feels is a failing marriage. When he returns that very evening, Michael finds his wife upstairs, studying for class while their two young children are downstairs, alone and hungry.

When his mother calls, he listens and calls Monica to go over to their parents house. He then calls their much younger sister, Aoife, in New York. No one has had much contact with Aoife for a few years. She was always the rebellious one, the one who did so poorly in school. The reader discovers Aoife has undiagnosed dyslexia.

There is a lot of history within this family – many words said in anger, most misunderstandings. Each of the siblings is anxious and worried about something and confides in no one.

When they were younger, they found solace in each other, but no longer. Monica, who was 10 when Aoife was born, was almost like a second mother to her. Now they do not speak.

As the story unfolds, the reader finds that Gretta and Robert have their own secrets.

Born in Ireland, they had come to London looking for work and prosperity. They lived through “the troubles” and the resulting backlash against the Irish in London. Gretta is a strong Catholic and proud of her Irish heritage.

The relationship among the three siblings is what makes this novel so interesting. As the three of them are thrown into the mystery of what has happened to their father, they find they have to communicate with each other.

Gretta and her children search for clues to find Robert, clues that eventually take them to the west of Ireland, a place where they vacationed as children. In their searching, they start to heal and find solutions to their own problems.

“Instructions for a Heatwave” is a story that explores family dynamics and ordinary lives. The attitudes of different generations toward the same challenges are
well depicted.