THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX

Maggie O’Farrell

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 more than sixty-one 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.

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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 more than sixty-one 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 she’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?

A gothic, intricate tale of family secrets, lost lives, and the freedom brought by truth, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox will haunt you long past its final page.

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  • Mariner Books
  • Paperback
  • February 2008
  • 256 Pages
  • 9780156033671

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$14.00

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About Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell was born in Northern Ireland in 1972, and grew up in Wales and Scotland. She now lives in Edinburgh with her family. Her debut novel, After You’d Gone, was published to international acclaim, and won a Betty Trask Award, while her third, The Distance Between Us, won the 2005 Somerset Maugham Award.

Praise

Esme is one of O’Farrell’s most compelling creations. The haunting final pages are among the finest O’Farrell has ever written. This, the most satisfying and least mannered of her novels, marks a significant leap forward both in narrative precision and imaginative skill”
Christie Hickman, New Statesman

“Actually unputdownable, written with charge and energy and a kind of compelling drive, a clarity and a gripping dramatic insidiousness reminiscent of classic Rebecca West and Daphne du Maurier.” —Ali Smith, Scotland on Sunday

The handling of different time periods is amazing.” —Independent

The most talked-about novel release of the summer.” — Marie Claire

Discussion Questions

When Iris gets the call from the psychiatric hospital, she is put in a very difficult position. What does she stand to gain and lose from the decision she eventually makes? What would you do in her shoes?

How have years of incarceration affected Esme? Has she retained any of the qualities we see in young Esme, before she is committed? Does she seem sane to you?

The story contains several twists – what are they, and which did you find the most shocking?

Considering all that Kitty has done, all that has happened to her, and the dementia she has suffered in old age, are you able to feel sympathetic towards her?

The relationship between Iris and Alex is a complex one. How does it seem to have influenced their relationships with others? By the end of the novel, do you think they had reached any kind of resolution?

How did you find the end of the book? Can you think of any alternative endings that might have worked?

What similarities, and what differences do you see between the younger Esme, and the younger Iris?

This is a novel with a very complex time scheme. What techniques does the author use to handle this?

This has been described as Maggie O’Farrell’s best novel so far. Do you agree?

The relationship between the sisters is very complicated. In what ways does it change as they enter adulthood?

How do you think people’s attitudes towards unmarried mothers have changed since Esme was a young girl? How different would her life have been had she been able to keep her baby?

What do you feel the book tells us about mental institutions? Do you think people’s attitudes have changed since the first half of the 20th Century?