Book Reviews

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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox  -  Maggie O'Farrell

In this relatively short book the author has packed the histories of three related women and the history of the times and the societies in which they lived. Esme and Kitty are elderly sisters raised in an upper class family in India and in Scotland; Iris is a young woman of the twenty-first century.

As a teenager, Esme seemed to not belong to the world and the time in which she was born. Her idiosyncrasies, including her wish to continue her schooling and her lack of interest in finding a husband, were unacceptable to her parents and her social group. She had an ally in her sister until the man Kitty had designs on revealed he had designs on Esme.

Kitty was the “good daughter”, who learned and lived the social niceties of her station, who chose a correct marriage, which was no marriage at all.

Esme was committed to a mental hospital at 16 for behavior that today would be considered normal and remained imprisoned for 61 years because she had no advocate. We read her story in bits in pieces, recalled by Esme as an elderly woman who had learned to make herself invisible in order to survive. Was she mentally ill? She was certainly mentally, emotionally and sexually abused.

Kitty was imprisoned by her own life, by the rules of a social class she needed to belong to, by the lie of her marriage and her motherhood, by the hate she grew to feel for her sister and, eventually, by her dementia. She tells her story in fragments as they flit in and out of her unreliable memory.

Iris has as complicated a life as the two other women. She is single, educated and exhibits bad judgement in her choice of romantic partners, engaging in behaviors that would certainly have resulted in her incarceration had she lived in the same era as her grandmother and the great aunt she didn’t know existed until she became her guardian. Iris is confident in her profession, but less so in her personal life, perhaps in part because of Kitty’s disapproval.

When the teenaged Esme was asked by her father to put away the book she was reading,  she couldn’t because the people on the page and the room they were in were holding her fast….*  Maggie O’Farrell could have been describing her own novel. She wove the strands of the story together with finesse and gorgeous language and kept me wondering to the final page.

*Maggie O’Farrell, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, (Harper Perennial, 2013) 161

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