A Review of Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and by the way, how many crazy ladies are there in the United Kingdom, exactly?

esme lennox

I elected to not post on Tuesday night in favor of finishing this lovely novel.  I got The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox from my boss maybe two years ago.  Let me take a minute to discuss my boss’s reading habits.  That woman is a machine and I don’t know how she gets through so many books so fast.  It’s possible she reads more than Bethany did at the height of her personal reading challenges a few years ago.   It probably helps that she doesn’t watch TV or have a blog.  I didn’t think I would have enough to say about this book to warrant two separate posts, especially since I would be writing the first one with only fifty pages to go.  Now that I’m done, I sort of wish I had gotten some thoughts down on “paper” before I read the ending, because it changed my impressions of a couple of the characters.

Esme Lennox is sort of a “converging lines” story, but not really.  There is a present-day story line, and also flashbacks to sixty years ago, when many awful things happened to one of the major characters.  The three major characters are Esme Lennox, her sister Kitty, and Kitty’s granddaughter Iris.  At the beginning of the novel Iris gets a phone call, and learns that she has a great aunt (the titular Esme) who she never knew she had.  Her grandmother has always been very adamant that she is an only child.  Turns out, Esme has been locked away in a mental hospital for over sixty years, and now the hospital is closing, and relatives are being told to pick up their crazy family members.  

After the past couple years of reading, I suspect the British Isles is full of insane asylums where crazy relatives get locked up.  Of course, Iris can’t really get any information out of her grandmother because Kitty is in assisted living because she had dementia.  Or Alzheimer’s.  Or something.  So Iris goes and gets Esme, tries to take her to the place the hospital has set up for her to go to.  They are only there for about five minutes when Iris realizes that this is no place for her not-as-crazy-as-she-was-expecting aunt, and takes her home.  They have a few adventures, and then they go to see Kitty.  Shenanigans ensure.  Iris has two men in her life: her ex-stepbrother Alex, and her boyfriend Luke who happens to be married to someone else.  She and Alex have been in love since they were kids, and this relationship is only slightly less troublesome to me than the one she has with married man Luke.  The present day storyline is not as interesting as the past history of Kitty and Esme.  They lived in India as kids but came home after a tragedy befell the family (their baby brother died of diphtheria).  Esme is what the human development folks would call a “spirited child” these days.  She doesn’t listen, doesn’t want to sit still, dreams of more for her life than marriage and family.  It is never made clear whether or not she has true mental illness, but she doesn’t seem crazy to me.  Kind of willful.  Not crazy.  Esme catches the eye of a fellow who Kitty also likes.  Now this guy.  He’s crazy.  He ends up raping Esme at a New Year’s party, and it’s after that that she freaks out and gets sent away.  And then she stays away.  I won’t do spoilers, but let’s just say that the epigraph from Edith Wharton sums it up pretty well: “I couldn’t have my happiness made out of a wrong—an unfairness—to somebody else….  What sort of life could we build on such foundations?”

I really enjoyed this book, and had nothing bad to say about it until the ending.  O’Farrell gets to the climax and then it just stops.  There is no resolution, except to the relationship between Esme and Kitty.  And that’s not a good resolution.  I really don’t like it when novels have cliffhanger endings.  I know that novelists like to experiment and all that, but I’m a traditionalist in the sense that I like to read books that resolve the plot.  I always make fun of my friend Jenni for not liking non-traditional novels.  She prefers to read books with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  And don’t tell her this, but I do too.  I can appreciate experimental structure, but I really have to fight annoyance.  And the end of this book annoyed me.  Here is the ending: “But the people in uniform are upon them, muttering, exclaiming, enveloping them in a great white cloud.  Iris cannot see anything but starched white cotton.  It presses against her shoulders, her hair, it covers her mouth.  They are taking Esme, they are pulling her up from the sofa, they are trying to extract her hand from Iris’s.  But Iris does not let go.  She grips the hand tighter.  She will go with it, she will follow it, through the white, through the crowd, out of the room, into the corridor and beyond (244-245).”

What really fascinates me about this book is how similar Esme’s situation is to Roseanne McNulty’s in The Secret Scripture.  I mean, really.  How many women got shipped to asylums just for being willful and maybe a bit wacky in the early twentieth century?  I found an article online from the Daily Mail that describes reasons why women could be placed in asylums.  I am so glad I am a woman now and not then!  I suspect that Esme had mental illness as a young woman, evidenced by an episode when she was young in which she felt that she was standing in the sea watching herself laying on the shore with her parents.  It’s an odd scene and I don’t know what that might be indicative of, but nothing bad enough to warrant sixty-one years in an asylum, I’m pretty sure.  I may want to learn more about institutionalization of women, but maybe I don’t want to know any more than I already do.

Not a perfect novel, but then what novel is?  I did enjoy it, though, and the plot and writing are pretty solid.  Kitty’s stream of consciousness sections are great.  No chapters present, just page breaks, but they are well-placed.  I liked the three major characters, and O’Farrell does a good job of making them sympathetic but also real.  Everyone’s motivations are well-delineated.  If only we could have seen what happens in the twenty-four hours after the book ends!  I think it’s good that I’m annoyed that I didn’t get to find out what happens to everyone: that means I was engaged in the story.  I’ll track down more Maggie O’Farrell , I think.

This entry was posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Maggie O'Farrell, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Review of Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and by the way, how many crazy ladies are there in the United Kingdom, exactly?

  1. Sarah K says:

    This is a bit of a random post but having just finished The Vanishing Acts of Esme Lennox I found your blog while looking for reviews!

    Sadly it was all too common for women in the 19th and early 20th centuries to be institutionalised for being promiscuous (either actually or imagined, sometimes as in Esme’s case for being raped or abused), for having babies out of wedlock, for being lesbians, or for just being unconventional. This disproportionately affected working class women, although not exclusively. There was no end date to their imprisonment, they were in pretty much for life. My mother worked with a number of women who had been in similar situations – had a baby, been gay, been a ‘bad girl’ etc – who were living in psychiatric hospitals or group homes in the 1970s and 1980s, having been there for 30-40-50 years. It was also the subject of her PhD research, hence my interest in the area!

    • badkitty1016 says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting–really interesting (and awful) to know that Esme Lennox’s situation was not unique. Have you read Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture? The female lead ends up institutionalized for equally sketchy reasons.

  2. Rebecca L Roberts says:

    I also found this blog entry while looking for reviews of the book. One thing I did like about the ending was that it left me free to imagine the ending. I get to choose between the sad but probable ending and the “happy”-ever-after ending for two out of the three main characters…. I guess my dislike of one of the characters is showing, to think that Iris would ever be happy with how things turned out!

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