Throwback Thursday: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

throwbackthursday

Throwback Thursday is a meme created by Renee at It’s Book Talk to share old favourite books rather than just the new shiny ones. This is a great idea to bring back to life some much-loved books. Please feel free to join in.

This weeks choice is taken from my 2010 review.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

esme

What I thought:

I completely fell in love with this book in the one sitting it took me to read it (because I just couldn’t put it down).

This is the story 2 young girls, Kitty and Esme, growing up in the 20’s and 30’s in first colonial India and then in Edinburgh when their parents move back home. They are sisters who share everything and love each other very much yet one is the dutiful, polite, home-maker type and the other is the slightly rebellious younger sister who wants to stay on at school rather than marry a nice boy. After a series of events (which include trying on her Mothers clothes of all things!) and a shocking incident that happens to her, Esme (the younger sister) is sent to a lunatic asylum and disowned by her own family and where she remains for the next 61 years.

In between this story told by Esme and also Kitty (whom now has Alzheimer’s) we also flit between the past and the present with Kitty’s Granddaughter, Iris, who also narrates her story. The way O’Farrell has woven the 3 women’s voices so intricately together to reveal only parts of the story at a time is just amazing and also serves to keep you turning those pages well into the night. The story is so beautifully told and the twists and surprises mean that you can’t possibly put it down even for a minute.

Verdict:

I don’t really know what I expected of this book, but I certainly wasn’t prepared to be so blown away by it.  I really do highly recommend this book and hope you enjoy as much as I did.

Update to original review:

Being a massive advocate and fund-raiser for mental health issues, this story is even more shocking to me now. The reasons that people were locked up in asylums in years gone by is horrifying. Thank god that things are changing for the better now (and still need to change radically). I could do (and might do) a whole post on its own about this at some point so watch this space…

The Best 11 Book Club Reads EVER!!!

Yes, that’s right – 11! For two reasons: 1) I couln’t narrow it down to ten 2) I thought 11 was an interesing enough number that would get your attention (it worked, didn’t it?) 😉

Now that’s out of the way, I will explain that these 11 books are the best book club reads in my opinion. Over the years I have been a member of a few bookclubs – both online and face-to-face and I have tried to include books that got the most stimulation discussions. Some were so fantastic for debate that we were discussing them for weeks or even months afterward, some of them were loved by some and hated by others but all provided lively chat and food for thought.

Here I am sharing some of my favourites with you.

 

The Big 13

1) First up is We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. This is the book that made our book club run well over time and was still being rased and talked about and compared for months after we read it. It is an utterly fantastic book. I found Shrivers style took me a while to get into the flow of the book at first, but once I found my rythem I couldn’t put it down. The book is about a teenage boy called Kevin who kills a number of his class-mates in a shool killing. The story is narrated by Kevin’s mother who writes a series of letters to her husband who is no longer with her and she talks of before Kevin was born and how she felt when she got pregnant and when Kevin was born through to the aftermath of the killings.

What makes this such an interesting book is the nature vs nurture debate. Kevin’s mum admits that she wasn’t especially maternal and never quite bonded with Kevin as a baby. There was a clear divide in our group that we didn’t realise towards the end of the discussion: most of the members who were parents blamed the mum, and most of those who were not parents thought Kevin had been born that way (me included). There is no clear answer to this question and one of the most interesting things is deciding what you believe based on the evidence.

A seriously great book for a book club and a twist at the end that will have you gasp out loud (I guarantee it!). Please, please let me know what you think if you read this – I’d love to know your take on it.

 

 

2) The Book Thief by Markus Zusac is next up. I have read this book with both online and face-to-face book clubs and it got the same reaction at both – most people loved it!

This book is narrated by Death and follows the story of a young girl, Liesl, who growing up in Germany in WW2 . She is orphaned and sent to live with a family on Himmel Street. The book brilliantly captures living during such a difficult time, with a family who aren’t hers, through hiding a Jew in the cellar, through watching people she loves die. She also steals books wherever she can (as they are so scarce). The relationships in this book are so brilliantly drawn that most people (even grown men) admitted to shedding a tear or two at the end (me? I bawled my head off!).

Makes a great discussion and again was one that lingered through subsequent months.

 

3) The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. OK, I confess that I haven’t actually read this as part of a group but there were quite a few people reading it at the same time as me on various blogs and there were some fantastic discussions going on in the blogosphere about this book.

Set in the 1940’s, on the eve of the NHS in rural England, a Doctor visits an old stately manor to see a maid who was complaing of stomach pains. When Dr Farrady digged a little further it turned out that the maid wasn’t ill at all but trying to get sent home as she was afraid of things “going bump in the night” (and day!) in the house. Farrady strikes up a friendship with the house members (of whom there are only 3 left) and becomes embroiled in some very strange goings on.

The real taking point is at the end of the book. It appears that Waters has left her readers to make up their own minds about what was really going on in the house but there are some great theories flying around that makes this a good read for debate.

4) Blindness by Jose Saramago is in at #4. I first read this is the Goodreads group The Next Best Book (which has over 5000 members and is run by my lovely friend Lori). I picked it up to read as there was so much discussion and enthusiasm around this book at the time. What a read! I was umprepared to love it so much but I honestly couldn’t put it down.

This book is amazing, incredible, breathtaking. It was recommended to me and once I started it  I was barely able to put it down. This book earned a place in my top 5  books of all time and deservedly so.

The story starts with a man in his car at traffic lights who goes suddenly blind. He is helped home by a stranger, who a few hours later also goes blind. Within a few days the blindness has spread round half the city and also those afflicted are herded up by the government into a disused mental assylum and left alone. The wards quickly become overrun with filth and chaos ensues. In the middle of this, though, we get to know a handful of characters very well and it is really their story that we follow through the neverending days, lack of food and riots. The whole story is told through long paragraphs of uunbroken text. There are no quotation marks, hardly any punctuation and none of the characters are given names. But it works!

This book has so much to discuss and I also read it with my face-to-face group and it sparked real mixed reviews which made a great talking point. One of my favourite books!

 

5) All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. I read this with my group many years ago but it still sticks in my mind. The whole group, without exception, loved it and was very moved by it.

It is set in WW1 and written from the German point of view. The difference is – there is no difference. Those soldiers had the same fears that our soldiers did, the same hopes and dreams. There is no them and us; only frightened boys on the front line doing as they are told and not really knowing why.

Tender, shocking, tragic and sad but ultimately one of the best books I have read.

 

 

6) Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. I read this before discussing it at a face-to-face group but was really eager to join in with the discussion. This book had two camps – the lovers and the haters. I was a lover! This book is one of my favourites ever.

Wharton has the most amazing talent to pull me right into her stories as though I am there right with the characters. Starkfield (where the book was set) – brilliant name for such a place; it was just that – freezing, barron, snow-covered, lonely. But this is quite possibly one of the most romantic love-stories I have ever read: it’s so real you can almost touch it. It’s tangible and it’s tragic. This book, despite the fact that it’s only 100 pages long, took me a couple of days to read. I just had to savour every word and re-read passages over again.

It’s clearly not a book for everyone based on the fact that it split the group but it certainly got us talking and debating as to why. Some people found it too bleak, I found it just beautiful.

6) Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind is in at six. This is one of the weirdest books I have ever read but also one of the best.

Survivor, genius, perfumer, killer: this is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. He is abandoned on the filthy streets of 17th century Paris as a child, but grows up to discover he has an extraordinary gift: a sense of smell more powerful than any other human’s. Soon, he is creating the most sublime fragrances in all the city. Yet there is one odor he cannot capture. It is exquisite, magical: the scent of a young virgin. And to get it he must kill. And kill. And kill.

This book went down really well in our book group (although not everybody liked it). The strangeness of the book was its genius for me. It got a great conversation going – especially the ending (which you will NOT see coming!).

 

7) The Road by Cormac McCarthy. This is another one that I first read for The Next Best Book Club on Goodreads. This one, however, got a completely split reaction: lovers and haters. I LOVED it!

I read this book in a day – I just found it impossible to put down. Although it’s bleak I found it to be written in a gentle, almost dream-like way which I loved. The story is of a man and his son (whose names we never learn) who are travelling south during the harsh, post-apocolyptic winter. They set off along the road with their cart and all their worldly belongings in it. We never find out the reason that the road and the fields and whole cities are burnt and abandoned; we are left the imagine for ourselves if it is due to war, asteroid etc.

It is a fabulous book and whether you love it or hate it I can guarantee that it will spark plenty of discussion – there’s so much to talk about with this book.

8) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Another dystopia novel – they really do generate some great banter though. This is another one that went down really well with out book group; in fact it won “book of the year” the year we read it.

The really interesting thing about this book is that although it is meant to be set in the America of the future (Gilead) it really could be so many countries today (think Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq to name a few). When I first read it back it the early 90’s I took it at face value – I saw a world in the future that I thought was possible. When I read it again 15 years later (and having been exposed to the aftermath of 9/11 and the war in the middle east) I was able to draw so many parallels with the world today.

Thumbs up for this group read!

9) Wild Swans by Jung Chang. I nominated this book for our book group back in 2004 because I was about to go to China on holiday and wanted to read some more of the history. Some people were dubious about reading it as it is such a thick book and it’s non-fiction but it ended up one of the most popluar books were read as a group.

This book is written by Jung Chang and she recounts her life and that of her mother and grandmother before her during some of the most turbulant times in China’s history. Her grandmother was a warlord’s concubine, her mother was in a prominet position in Mao’s communist party before being denounced and Jung herself marched and worked for Mao until the doubts crept in. What these three generations of women lived through is so beyond belief at times that you think that it could only be fiction.

All agreed that this book was well worth the time and it is one that you won’t forget in a hurry either.

 

10) The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. Another one from the face-to-face book group that was enjoyed by pretty much everyone.

This is the story 2 young girls, Kitty and Esme, growing up in the 20’s and 30’s in first colonial India and then in Edinbugh when their parents move back home. They are sisters who share everything and love each other very much yet one is the dutiful, polite, home-maker type and the the other is the slightly rebellious younger sister who wants to stay on at shcool rather than marry a nice boy. After a series of events (which include trying on her Mothers clothes of all things!) and a shocking incident that happens to her, Esme (the younger sister) is sent to a lunatic assylum and dissowned by her own family and where she remains for the next 61 years.

What a discussion this provoked! The rights of women (or lack of them), the things that could get you locked up back then (over half of us agreed that we wouldn’t have stood a chance in those days) and the shame that surrounds supposed mental illness. All that wrapped inside a brilliantly told story.

 

 

11) The bonus book! And I’m cheating with this one as I have never actually read it with a group despite my many pleas over the years. This book is BRILLIANT! It is one of my favourites of all time (in my top 3) – why oh why don’t people want to read this? (I know at least 2 readers of this blog who will back me up on this – Virginie and Lua, help me out with this!)

In The Magus by John Fowles young Englishman, Nicholas Urfe, accepts a teaching position on a Greek island where his friendship with the owner of the islands most magnificent estate leads him into a nightmare. As reality and fantasy are deliberately confused by staged deaths, erotic encounters, and terrifying violence, Urfe becomes a desperate man fighting for his sanity and his life. The Magus is a book that really messes with your head –  filled with shocks and chilling surprises and so many twists that every time you think you have it sussed you are thrown way off course again, this book is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.

I demand that you all read this book! It is pure brilliance and would make such a fantastic group discussion – the only problem would be where to start!


Some truly great books there for you to check out. I have chosen them as being the ones that created the liveliest debate and discussion as well as being great reads.

Have you read any of the above? Will you share with us all what you thought about them? Do you agree or not agree? And of course, if you do go away and read any of them (in a group or on your own) please do pop back and tell us what you thought – I can’t wait to hear 🙂

Book Review: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

I completely fell in love with this book in the one sitting it took me to read it (because I just couldn’t put it down).

This is the story 2 young girls, Kitty and Esme, growing up in the 20’s and 30’s in first colonial India and then in Edinbugh when their parents move back home. They are sisters who share everything and love each other very much yet one is the dutiful, polite, home-maker type and the the other is the slightly rebellious younger sister who wants to stay on at shcool rather than marry a nice boy. After a series of events (which include trying on her Mothers clothes of all things!) and a shocking incident that happens to her, Esme (the younger sister) is sent to a lunatic assylum and dissowned by her own family and where she remains for the next 61 years.

Inbetween this story told by Esme and also Kitty (whom now has altzheimers) we also flit between the past and the present with Kitty’s Grandaugter, Iris, who also narrates her story. The way O’Farrell has woven the 3 women’s voices so intricately together to reveal only parts of the story at a time is just amazing and also serves to keep you turning those pages well into the night. The story is so beautiflly told and the twists and surprises mean that you can’t possibly put it down even for a minute.

I don’t really know what I expected of this book, but I certainly wasn’t prepared to be so blown away by it.  I really do highly recommend this book and hope you enjoy as much as I did. I have read one other of O’Farrell’s (After You’d Gone) which I also enjoyed but not as much as this one.