Why have I not read Maggie O'Farrell before?!
I don't know, 'cause she's gooooood
. Like, sit in the bathtub until you're a prune good. Miss your stop on the train good. Refuse to split the driving time on a weekend road trip good.
I may or may not have done all of these things while reading this book.
In all honesty, this is a pretty standard Family in Crisis novel. The basic plot is a rather familiar one: husband leaves one day and doesn't come home, mother requests the presence of her far-flung adult children who are each so burdened with their own little dramas that their relationships with each other have disintegrated. O'Farrell has set her version of these events in the midst of the 1976 heatwave that sent London into a drought, at a time when the Irish were still viewed suspiciously and traditional values clashed with modern attitudes in the worst way.
Gretta is the mother with a larger than life presence that her children find more embarrassing than anything. Michael Francis, the eldest, is struggling to keep his marriage together despite his resentment that is has cost him all of his professional aspirations. Monica, the favorite, lost her first marriage to an ill-kept secret and now feels beleaguered by how much her second husband's daughters resent her. Aiofe, the baby, has run off to New York after a falling out with Monica and struggles to hide the fact that she can not read. Robert, the absent father, has long used his bookish nature and difficult war experiences as an excuse to avoid discussing his equally difficult personal history.
So I saw Jami Attenburg speak at the Gaithersburg Book Festival earlier this spring, and she mentioned that she had been asked to blurb this book. It's her blurb that ultimately sums up the best thing about this book: "It's just the kind of family drama I love: Nobody gets off easy in it, but everybody gets treated with compassion.”
I love, love, loved these characters. They're complicated and flawed, but entirely realistic and deserving of empathy. Each character made me - in equal parts - root for them and exclaim, "What the fuck, dude?" They were so, so human
Then there's the fact that O'Farrell could write the face off just about anyone else currently sitting pretty in the new release bins. I've read a long string of "meh" books over the last few months and I was long overdue for a book that I could not put down. Her prose just rolled around in my head and I didn't want it to stop. I was impressed by the way that she laid out tiny little ironies -- the illiterate character with the name no one can properly pronounce -- just waiting to be picked apart and mined for meaning, yet never so in your face that I wanted to pat her on the head and say, "We get it, sweetie."
My one complaint, the only thing that I can see being a problem for other folks, is that it feels as though O'Farrell rushed through the ending in order to tie every loose thread up but didn't quite address everything. I got to the end and I wanted...just a little more. The bows she tied everything up with were a little too vague. Regardless, this book is fantastic, exactly what I needed.