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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006)

by Maggie O'Farrell

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,7921854,161 (3.81)332
Moving between the 1930s and the present, Maggie O'Farrell's new novel is an unforgettable portrait of a woman edited out of her family's history. The heartbreaking tale of two sisters in colonial India and Edinburgh bound together by loneliness and driven apart by rivalries that lead to a cruel betrayal, it is also the gripping story of how, 60 years later, their shocking secret comes to light. An impassioned, intense, haunting family drama, this novel is a stunning imagining of a life stolen, and reclaimed.… (more)
  1. 40
    The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Nickelini)
    Nickelini: Maggie O'Farrell says that The Yellow Wallpaper was a major influence in writng The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
  2. 30
    The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (Eowyn1)
  3. 20
    The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (rbtanger)
    rbtanger: Very similar in tone and several thematic elements.
  4. 20
    Miss Garnet's Angel by Salley Vickers (JenMDB)
  5. 10
    Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg (amyblue)
  6. 00
    The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers (jm501)
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English (176)  Spanish (4)  Dutch (2)  Catalan (2)  French (1)  All languages (185)
Showing 1-5 of 176 (next | show all)
Cauldstone, the mental asylum, is closing. All the patients must be returned to their families or placed elsewhere, so Iris Lockhart is contacted regarding one of those patients, her great-aunt, Esme Lennox, a person whose existence is wholly unknown to her. Esme’s sister, Kitty, is suffering from Alzheimer’s and Iris’s father is dead. This responsibility falls solely upon her shoulders.

What Maggie O’Farrell gives us is Esme’s story, which is a sad and infuriating one, and Iris’s story which has at least one sad element of its own. Neither of these women does exactly what people expect of them, and one of them has paid a price beyond belief for being independent and different.

She shuts her mouth, closes her throat, folds her hands over each other and she does the thing she has perfected. Her specialty. To absent yourself, to make yourself vanish. Ladies and gentlemen, behold. It is most important to keep yourself very still. Even breathing can remind them that you are there; so only very short, very shallow breaths. Just enough to stay alive. And no more.

Imagine doing that for so long that it becomes an art. Imagine a situation in which you might require that of another human being. Imagine that human being is your daughter, your sister, even your patient. The idea tied my stomach in knots. I have not felt this level of wanting to smash into a cell and free someone since reading Sebastian Barry’s [b:The Secret Scripture|3419808|The Secret Scripture|Sebastian Barry|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1325714117l/3419808._SY75_.jpg|3460278].

This is a story about family, about sisters, about love and hate and jealousy and ruin and ignorance and intolerance, and a parent who can calmly turn his back and walk away from the unthinkable.

They have all narrowed down to this black-haired girl sitting on the sand, who has no idea that her hands and her eyes and the tilt of her head and the fall of her hair belong to Esme’s mother. We are all, Esme decides, just vessels through which identities pass; we are lent features, gestures, habits, then we hand them on. Nothing is our own. We begin in the world as anagrams of our antecedents.

That quotation struck me as so true and profound. I have been researching my family line lately and, as I read about the women and men who came before me, I have wished so much that there were photographs that I might search for traces of the familiar. Who knows what parts of those others exist in those of us still here...bits of themselves left behind forever.

I am not surprised to have loved this book. I have read enough reviews on Goodreads to know that Maggie O’Farrell is destined to be an author I want to read over and over again. I am excited to have my first one behind me. I cannot imagine they get any better than this.
( )
  mattorsara | Aug 11, 2022 |
Written in a format that reveals Esme's story through character's thoughts starting and ending mid-sentence. Took a bit of getting used to, but worked in the end. Good story that made your heart break for Esme; the ending was interesting and a bit vague. Would recommend... ( )
  almin | Aug 9, 2022 |
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell is a complex story told from multiple viewpoints, but first and foremost, it is about family secrets, both old and new.

Iris has a full plate with her second-hand clothing store, her affair with a married man, her grandmother having Alzheimer’s and her conflicted feelings about her step-brother Alex. Then she is contacted by the Cauldstone Mental Hospital and informed that her great-aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, is being released after more than 60 years in confinement. After ascertaining that Esme is indeed a relative, Iris agrees to house her until suitable accommodation can be found.

There are actually four narratives to follow in this book, that of Iris and Esme in the present and then Esme and her sister Kitty revealing flashbacks from their childhood. The narratives are woven together seamlessly and, at first, I was a little confused by whose memories we were hearing, but I very quickly was able to separate each character’s voice.

As children the two sisters were very different. Kitty was the quiet, well behaved, well mannered child while Esme was often to be found misbehaving, an inquisitive and independent child who did not fit the role that her parents wanted her to. Then when she was sixteen, something occurred at a party that Esme couldn’t properly explain and her parents had their unruly child committed to Cauldstone.

As the family’s secrets start to be revealed I was both horrified and heart broken.
This is a moving story that I will be thinking of for some time. The author has created interesting and believable characters in a beautifully written, emotionally captivating story that details the Edwardian mindset of locking away those who did not conform to the social conventions of the day. The depth of emotion conveyed in this short book is astounding and Maggie O’Farrell has become an author whose work I need to explore more of. ( )
  DeltaQueen50 | Jul 20, 2022 |
My first O'Farrell, and what a punch to the gut.

Iris is her elderly grandmother's POA--she has alzheimers. And Iris learns she has a great aunt who has spent her entire adult life in a mental institution. Which is now closing, and Iris must find her great aunt a new place to live.

O'Farrell tells this story using various points of view--Iris's, Esme's, and Kitty's--the elderly grandmother/sister who no longer even knows who Iris is. But she randomly remembers things about the past, and it is she who gives the most clues about what really happened to Esme and who was really to blame for her being there for 60-odd years. ( )
  Dreesie | Apr 3, 2022 |
Wow. This book was wonderful, sad and haunting all at once. Couldn't put it down! ( )
  Erica8 | Dec 8, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 176 (next | show all)

» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Maggie O'Farrellprimary authorall editionscalculated
Alemany, JosepTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Flosnik, AnneNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Much Madness is divinest Sense--

To a discerning eye--

Much Sense--the starkest Madness--

'Tis the Majority

In this, as All, prevail--

Assent--and you are sane--

Demur--and you're straightaway dangerous--

And handled with a Chain--

Emily Dickinson
I couldn't have my happiness made out of a wrong-- an unfairness-- to somebody else . . . What sort of a life could we build on such foundations?

Edith Wharton
Dedication
for Saul Seamus
First words
Let us begin with two girls at a dance.
Quotations
This girl is remarkable to her. She is a marvel. From all her family – her and Kitty and Hugo and all the other babies and her parents – from all of them, there is only this girl. She is the only one left. They have all narrowed down to this black-haired girl sitting o the sand, who has no idea that her hands and her eyes and the tilt of her head and the fall of her hair belong to Esme's mother. We are all, Esme decides, just vessels through which identities pass: we are lent features, gestures, habits, then we hand them on. Nothing is our own. We begin in the world as anagrams of our antecedents.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Moving between the 1930s and the present, Maggie O'Farrell's new novel is an unforgettable portrait of a woman edited out of her family's history. The heartbreaking tale of two sisters in colonial India and Edinburgh bound together by loneliness and driven apart by rivalries that lead to a cruel betrayal, it is also the gripping story of how, 60 years later, their shocking secret comes to light. An impassioned, intense, haunting family drama, this novel is a stunning imagining of a life stolen, and reclaimed.

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Book description
In the middle of tending to the everyday business at her vintage clothing shop and sidestepping her married boyfriend’s attempts at commitment, Iris Lockhart receives a stunning phone call: Her great-aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, is being released from Cauldstone Hospital—where she has been locked away for over sixty years. Iris’s grandmother Kitty always claimed to be an only child. But Esme’s papers prove she is Kitty’s sister, and Iris can see the shadow of her dead father in Esme’s face. Esme has been labeled harmless—sane enough to coexist with the rest of the world. But Esme’s still basically a stranger, a family member never mentioned by the family, and one who is sure to bring life-altering secrets with her when she leaves the ward. If Iris takes her in, what dangerous truths might she inherit?

Maggie O’Farrell’s intricate tale of family secrets, lost lives, and the freedom brought by truth will haunt readers long past its final page.
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