Saturday, August 24, 2013

"The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox," by Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell’s novel “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox” (Harcourt, 2006) is exquisite. Esme is an odd, dreamy girl and young woman, one who doesn't conform to society’s, or her mother’s, expectations. And, like many such young women, she is quietly put away in a mental institution, and never spoken of again. Sixty years later, the hospital is closing, and her only surviving relative, her great-niece Iris, is shocked to receive a call asking her to decide what should be done with Esme, whom Iris had never heard about. The rest of the book goes back and forth between what happens before Esme was institutionalized, and what happens in the present as Iris tries to absorb this shocking information and responsibility. Gradually the two strands are interwoven. The writing is beautiful. The events of the story also, of course, shed light on an important issue: that far too many women throughout history who have not conformed, have not behaved as expected or as told to behave, have been punished, hidden, treated as mentally ill or even evil. O’Farrell illuminates this issue in a powerful way, while never subordinating her art to being didactic. This is a sad but lovely book. Highly recommended.

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