I love Maggie O’Farrell’s writing. I never keep on my shelves any books I’ve read unless I think I might want to lend them to others, show them what I love – Maggie O’Farrell’s books are all still there, top shelf, tall bookcase. I so wanted to love this one too – it’s been a long wait since the wonderful The Hand That First Held Mine. But – although the author still writes beautifully and engages as always with her exploration of her complex characters, this one didn’t quite hit the mark for me.
The opening – the stifling heat of the summer of 1976, and how difficult it was to function – is excellent. From that point on, the stifling is a little more domestic – the secrets and relationships dealt with within a family when the father walks out to get a newspaper, at his usual 6.45am, and fails to return. We then get to know the other members of the family, who assemble to support their mother and hopefully bring the father home. The eldest, Michael Francis, is a history teacher, in a marriage where his wife has decided she has other goals and dreams. Monica has had a previous life riddled with secrets and is now stuggling with her new life with Peter, who still has strong ties to his former family. Then there’s Aoife – the difficult child, but by far the most engaging – now working in New York for a photographer, but struggling both with family history and the reading problems she works hard to keep hidden. And the mother and father have secrets of their own.
As always, the exploration of thoughts, feelings, emotions, secrets is done exceptionally well, but I was really disappointed that the underlying narrative really failed to totally engage me, the secrets just weren’t dramatic enough to shock me, and the ending rather fizzled out. When the focus of the action changes, although the setting was well drawn it failed to kick the story into a second gear for me. I enjoyed the book, but sadly couldn’t love it, and maybe the timing just wasn’t right for me – hopefully her next one will blow me away again and I can add another favourite to my shelf.