The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

July 18, 2010

Harcourt, 2006

Finished: July 11, 2010

Source: blog (forgot to write which one)

Genre:  chick lit madwoman in the attic feminist revenge tale

On the Scales: lightweight

I didn’t love this book, but I loved the ending.  If you have read it you will know what I mean, and what a meanie I am.

That is all I really need to say.  However, since you took the trouble of bringing me up in your browser I will also say:  Maggie O’Farrell does some fantastic writing.  She won my heart with this passage.

Iris and Luke came across each other two months ago at a wedding.  Iris hates weddings.  She hates them with a passion.  All that parading about in ridiculous clothes, the ritualized publicising of a private relationship, the endless speeches given by men on behalf of women.  But she quite enjoyed this one.  One of her best friends was marrying a man Iris liked for a change; the bride had a beautiful outfit, for a change; there had been no seating plans, no speeches, and no being herded about for horrible photographs.

Much my own feelings about weddings.  Thank God I’ve only got a few more half-siblings and cousins left to go.  She continues:

It was Iris’s outfit that had done it–a backless green crêpe-de-Chine cocktail dress she’d had specially altered.  She had been talking to friend for some time but had still been aware of the man who had sidled up next to them.  He was looking about the marquee with an air of calm assurance as he sipped his champagne, as he waved at someone, as he passed a hand through his hair. When the friend said, “That’s quite a dress, Iris,” the man had said, without looking at them, without even leaning towards them.  ”But it isn’t really a dress.  Isn’t it what used to be called a gown?”

Hee, hee!  What a line!

I have also (just once) experienced the magical effect of a Really Good Outfit on a nasty social event: a January wedding to which I wore a mid-sixties textured wool suit with three-quarter length sleeves which I had mended and altered myself, a new silk-satin scarf which complemented it perfectly, and a pair of very tight, unlined, never-worn, vintage 3/4 length kid gloves.  Still hated the wedding, but it was like I was floating through the awfulness on a cloud of fashion confidence.

Introverted party-goers, I recommend gloves.

Then we learn Iris runs a vintage clothing store.  After an extremely sensuous window dressing scene with with a red velvet haute couture gown, I began to think I was in for a bookful of the same ecstatic antique apparel fan-service I enjoyed in These Granite Islands.  It was not to be.  We never went back to Iris’ shop!

I was much more interested in modern-day Iris than I was in poor Esme’s past.  For one thing, I was embarrassed by the anachronisms in O’Farrell’s portrayal of 1930’s Edinburgh.  (Or whatever you call them; really they are anti-anachronisms–I mean when the past is more stiff-upper-lip, “In your place, young lady!”, dour past-y than it ought to be, given the setting.)  The mistakes weren’t horrible, but they were, well, agenda-ed.  It’s not a criticism I like to make, but since O’Farrell is actually a bit older than me, I will: this seems to be an especially noticeable fault in young writers.  A subtle ideological mishandling of the past, even when they’ve done their research.

The narrators of this past are a couple of old ladies, sisters.  Kitty has Alzheimer’s.  Esme seems to have something like Asperger’s.  This means you have to piece the story together, which is the point.  You, reader, are to be all the more horrified at what happened to Esme (who has spent the last 60 years locked up) because it is presented as the emotional equivalent of a strip tease.  Pretty gruesome.

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8 Responses to “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell”

  1. Teresa said

    I liked this a fair bit, mostly because of the ending. (I’m a meanie too, it seems.) It’s been a while since I read this, but my recollection is that I liked the sections in the past better than the present-day storyline. I think I know what you mean about it being agenda-heavy, though. I’ve found a tendency in a lot of writers to make the past all bad and oppressive and the present all good and liberated, and the reality is perhaps a bit more complex.

    I did wonder, given the ending, if we were supposed to take Esme’s story at face value. I think we probably were, but I sort of wished more ambiguity had been thrown in.

    • trapunto said

      Yes, O’Farrell was ambiguous about her ambiguity!

      I usually like the the past strand better than the present strand too, in these two time frame novels, just not this time.

      I have come to think that my oversensitivity to the “feeling” of past times is a lot like my oversensitive nose. Not necessarily a convenience, irritating to others, nothing to be done about it, but at least not my fault.

  2. Jeanne said

    This sounds right up my alley; I can get into some vicarious meanness. I think I’ll put a note by the title that this would be a good “cheer me up when I’m feeling irritable in the winter” book.

    • trapunto said

      I’d be interested to hear what you think of it. I wouldn’t peg it for a cheerer-upper, since the only *deserved* meanness is very brief.

  3. zibilee said

    A friend of mine read this book and said it was terrible, but since I had already been interested in it for a long time, and I didn’t particularly trust her recommendations, I swept it aside. I think it does sound like an interesting book, just not as interesting as I had anticipated.

    I will have to try to remember the gloves at my next social gathering!

    • trapunto said

      I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with your friend. There are tighter, better books doing all the same sorts of things. I did like O’Farrell’s descriptions, though, and I am a sucker for anything set in Scotland!

  4. Jenny said

    I liked this a lot and now have no recollection of the ending at all. How embarrassing! I think of myself as totally an endings-girl, and there is a blank spot in my brain when I try to think of how this book ended. :/

    • trapunto said

      Ha, that’s interesting! I can easily see the same thing happening to me. I had to go back and read the ending twice to make sure what I thought happened actually happened. Even then it was dream-visiony. It was also very whiz-bang truncated. O’Farrell set up expectations for a nice, satisfying chick lit ending, with a leisurely anticlimax where we’d get to watch Esme and Iris settling in together, with hints that they would develop a beautiful relationship.

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