Friday, March 2, 2012

Maggie O'Farrell's The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox- Not for kids


Iris Lockhart has always believed that her grandmother, Kitty, was an only child.  Until Iris gets a call from Cauldstone psychiatric hospital, explaining that a woman named Esme Lennox is to be released. At first, Esme is in disbelief that she has a family member that she doesn't know about.

What I like about the novel is that O'Farrell tells the story from the perspective of three women: Esme, Iris, and Kitty. Iris is a single woman, and has two married men in love with her. Esme has been in an institution for 61 years, and is free for the first time. Kitty has Alzheimer's, and her memories come to her in patches. Through Esme and Kitty's memories, their story unfolds and family secrets are revealed.

What I didn't like about the novel is the way O'Farrell organized the plot line.  The story was not broken down into chapters or sections, it's just a long and continuous story without any stopping points. Also, the way that the author chooses to switch the characters' point of view is strange.  In one paragraph, you are reading a memory from Esme's point of view.  In the next, you are reading one of Kitty's patchy memories.  The only way one can tell the point of view is by the use of the character's names.

Another thing that makes the novel harder to follow is the need to infer all the major points of the story.  The author never comes out and clearly says why Esme was institutionalized, but you can infer that it's because Esme's parents were tired of her antics. Through the telling of the story there are hints at a diagnosis, like schizophrenia or personality disorder, but I don't think there's anything wrong with her. At most, my guess is that she has Asperger's Syndrome. The reason I think so is because of the emotional outbursts, not being able to interpret appropriate social behavior, and the meticulous counting and observations she makes throughout the novel.  By today's standards, that isn't a reason to have someone committed to a psychiatric institution.

Oh, and about Esme? What the heck! All that poor girl needed was someone to love her and appreciate her quirks. Instead, she is left alone in India for days with a nanny and a brother that died of typhoid disease. She was raped in the coat closet at a party, just before being committed. Did anyone even realize that Jamie hurt her? I wonder this because his parents sent him away, but through Kitty's memories you learn that she was jealous and still pining for him after Esme was sent away.

You also have to infer what Kitty took from Esme, and that's the big secret. Plus, I'm a little foggy on how the story ends.  I don't want to reveal too much but if you decide to read the novel, I'd like to know your thoughts.

Overall, I think that the story has a great story line and a ton of potential. I just didn't like how the novel was organized, and unfortunately we can't cater books to meet our needs.

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