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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

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Maggie O’Farrell takes readers on a journey to the darker places of the human heart, where desires struggle with the imposition of social mores. This haunting story explores the seedy past of Victorian asylums, the oppression of family secrets, and the way truth can change everything.

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.

277 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2006

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About the author

Maggie O'Farrell

39 books9,468 followers
Maggie O'Farrell (born 1972, Coleraine Northern Ireland) is a British author of contemporary fiction, who features in Waterstones' 25 Authors for the Future. It is possible to identify several common themes in her novels - the relationship between sisters is one, another is loss and the psychological impact of those losses on the lives of her characters.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,859 reviews
Profile Image for Laura.
742 reviews266 followers
April 11, 2013
Man, I love to read. Opening a book by an author you've never read is like having a plane ticket to an unknown destination. You don't know where you're going, or exactly when you'll arrive. You just have to trust the pilot to get you there in one piece, hopefully with a smile on your face. Maggie O'Farrell doesn't disappoint, let me just tell you.

I don't think I'd have ever added this book if I paid lots of attention to the title or the cover. Both make me think of a frilly-froo-froo type read about women who love to shop and/or care about fashion. Which is pretty much the UN-me. Quoting now from page one, so this is no spoiler:

Let us begin with two girls at a dance. ... Or perhaps not. Perhaps it begins earlier, before the party, before they dressed in their new finery, before the candles were lit, before the sand was sprinkled on the boards, before the year whose end they are celebrating began. Who knows? Either way it ends at a grille covering a window with each square exactly two thumbnails wide.

I hope the author or publisher reads this review. For the love of God, please, please release another edition of this book with a new cover: a close-up of that window with an eye pressed to it, peering out. Just an eye. In the corner. And watch the sales skyrocket. The cover of the book I read, which is a girl looking down at her fancy blue dress barely tiptoes around the fringes of what the book is about. You want to draw a reader who will appreciate this book? Change the cover, and boom.

In this book, you will float through the minds of several people. Two of them can be quite disjointed in their thoughts. She puts you right there. You will experience everything. This isn't exactly an easy read. It's a fast read, but you can't help but cringe at times as the horribleness begins to unfold. Still, it's hard to put down. You'll skip from past to present, and from one character to the next, without any chapter breaks at all. She simply skips a few lines and presents you with another scene. Loved the audio performance too, by Anne Flosnik.

Highly recommended. Let me know what you think of this one. This would be a great book for a group discussion.

ETA: Be careful you don't read too many reviews prior to the book. The less you know, the better. I really just wanted to try and convince people to look beyond the horrid cover and title.
Profile Image for Debbie.
431 reviews2,738 followers
August 14, 2018
Hand me the WD40!

I know you all are probably getting sick of my pogo stick, but damn, here I go again, hopping like crazy! Can someone lend me some WD40? The damn thing is getting squeaky from overuse! But I’m not complaining.

I love loony bins!
This book, oh, this book. The story is about Esme, a woman who has spent 60 years in a loony bin and suddenly is released into the custody of her grand-niece, whom she has never met. (Juicy already, right?) So 60 years?!! Come on, right there the book had me salivating. I love psychology, and frankly, I love crazy characters. I immediately had a zillion questions. How crazy is she, and what does it look like? What if she isn’t crazy at all? Did someone commit her and throw away the key, or did she claim her spot as a crackpot and hang out a sign, Home Sweet Home? Why was she there so eff-ing long? What’s it like inside the joint? Plenty of juicy questions, which could only have juicy answers. I was ready to scarf down this slurpie!

It’s jumpy all right…
There are three narrators: Esme, her sister, and her grand-niece. Each of them chirps up unexpectedly, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph even, squeezing out the last character who was just getting started. Yeah, it’s jumpy all right—there are even two time periods. Who knew whether this would work for me. Would I get totally confused and go running to my Complaint Board? No way, not with a master like O’Farrell. I realized early on that my pogo stick had a mind of its own, leading me from person to person, past to present, ecstatically cutting through time and space with ease.

Trying to sell the jumpy.
I was trying to sell this jumpy style to a friend who lives by linear. He was not impressed. Super annoyed even by the idea of it, he wanted to know why the author didn’t just tell the story with a normal beginning, middle, and end, like real life. So I had to wrack my brain to figure it out myself. I realized this is what was so cool: Each of the three stories was completely spell-binding. I’d leave one exciting story and be immediately dropped into another story that was just as exciting. The drama is non-stop, yet it’s never over-the-top or gratuitous. There’s tension out the ying-yang. So how does O’Farrell manage to make everything seem like a cliffhanger? This isn’t a thriller, so how does that work? Answer: She’s such an amazing writer, she makes you feel like every single scene is intense and important. She makes sure you have no choice but to read on, to glue your eyes to the page. You gobble up the secrets as you try in vain to figure out where the story is going. The ending is a whopper.

Like me best!
Each story was saying, “Like me the best!” “I do, I do!”, I yelled back. I wasn’t lying. I like each one the best. One story would grab my attention and hold on to it tight, and I was mesmerized, hypnotized, and immersed in its sea of drama. And then in the very next paragraph, I’d be in another world and on full alert again. It felt smooth and oddly peaceful, this floating on top of her words, peeking into the souls of these intriguing characters.

I hear a symphony
The story is so creative, the writing so good. The fact that O’Farrell could come up with such an amazing storyline and could intertwine the three voices so artfully just left me in awe. It’s like a symphony where there are a bunch of solos, all different instruments, all equally rich and unique, and then they play together and it’s dynamite.

A feisty kiddo
As a kid, Esme is quirky, feisty, independent. She’s engaged in the world with such zest and intensity it’s hard not to love her. It’s her misfortune to be raised in 1930s Scotland, where life is full of rules. Esme doesn’t fit the mold of what a girl should act like, and this can get her in trouble.

60 years later…
As an adult, Esme is an enigma. What’s she going to be like now, as she is suddenly being collected up from the loony bin by her grand-niece, Iris, whom she has never met? Is Esme dangerous? How will she react to the free world?

Just imagine yourself in her shoes
Iris’s story grabbed me, too. She’s so earnest, curious, wary, and overwhelmed. And she has her own secrets. But never mind her various interesting feelings—just imagine having a stranger who has spent 60 years in a loony bin come stay with you! That, right there. THAT! That’s what has me bowing to O’Farrell. What an irresistible storyline she has created!

Go into it blind
I don’t want to give away any of the plot, which is sort of complicated but still very accessible. (I just love literary fiction that is accessible!) It’s great to go into this one blind. Just know that it’s a haunting story about siblings, secrets, guilt. We get to see the past through both Esme’s and her sister’s eyes, and we get to see the present through both Esme’s and her grand-niece’s eyes. I love it when we get to see what’s going on from two points of view.

Why this book?
I read this book because I was high on O’Farrell’s memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. I knew her language fits me—it makes me feel all floaty and it makes my soul all happy. And as I said, I love crazy and I love loony bins—as any zealous ex-Psych major would.

Beauteous language. Complex, juicy plot. Intriguing characters. Surprises. This book delivers all that, and it swept me away into another world. I couldn’t put it down. Yes, it’s pogo-stick time, as I hop on over to my all-time favorites pile and gleefully toss this book onto it!
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,275 reviews2,215 followers
September 30, 2014
The opening of this novel reflects the simple beauty and power of O'Farrell's writing and I was immediately drawn into this story.

“Let us begin with two girls at a dance.
They are at the edge of the room. One sits on a chair, opening and shutting a dance-card with gloved fingers. The other stands beside, watching the dance unfold: the circling couples, the clasped hands, the drumming shoes, the whirling skirts, the bounce of the floor. It is the last hour of the year and the windows behind them are blank with night. The seated girl is dressed in something pale, Esme forgets what, the other in a dark red frock that doesn’t suit her. She has lost her gloves. It begins here.
Or perhaps not.”

It was not long before my heart was broken for Esme Lennox, a precocious , inquisitive, sometimes misbehaving little girl who is not what her parents want her to be. She suffers the cruelty of her mother and father in some scenes that are just so difficult to read. Esme is tied to a chair so she doesn't crawl under the table during dinner. Everyone jumps up and leaves the table ( it wasn’t clear to me
why ) but they forget about her. The family goes on a trip and leaves Esme , as they don’t want to deal with her, home with the nursemaid and her baby brother Hugo. While they are gone, the unthinkable happens , and Esme is alone for several days and traumatized by what has happened. The cruelty continues and Esme mother won’t speak to her or even look at her.

There are three narratives in the story : flashbacks of Esme from her childhood days in India and then in Scotland, and from her sister Kitty from those same times and places. The third is the present day story of Iris, Kitty’s granddaughter. These move swiftly from past to present to past again without any warning. It was at first a little confusing but then it becomes clear as the book moves on who is thinking or speaking.

If you’ve read the description of the book, you know that Esme has been in a mental institution for 60 years. This reminded me so much of a book I recently read , "What She Left Behind" also about a woman committed because her father said so , not because she was insane.”

Before the end I was able to figure out something about Esme that is not revealed until near the end but the book was no less captivating . As for the end - I woke up this morning thinking about it. I was not expecting it. This is a moving story that won’t leave me anytime soon.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,690 reviews14.1k followers
March 13, 2013
I'm not sure that any review can actually do this book justice. It is emotionally powerful and powerfully heartbreaking, such a short book to convey so much emotion and so much depth. Hard to believe there was a time when a young girl or wife or mother could be committed to a psychiatric institute indefinitely just on the say so of a doctor, a mother,a jealous sister, a father or a husband. But there was. The writing in this book is deceptively simple and oh so elegant. The characters real and complete, using flashbacks and memories. The ending a reversal and for me, perfect.
Profile Image for Sandysbookaday is (reluctantly) on hiatus.
1,923 reviews2,013 followers
January 10, 2021
EXCERPT: The volumes are enormous and weighty. Iris has to stand up to read them. A thick epidermis of dust has grown over the spine and the top edges of the pages. She opens one at random and the pages, yellowed and brittle fall open at May 1941. A woman called Amy is admitted by a Dr Wallis. Amy is a war widow and has suspected puerperal fever. She is brought in by her brother. He says she won't stop cleaning the house. There is no mention of the baby and Iris wonders what happened to it. Did it live? Did the brother look after it? Did the brother's wife? Did the brother have a wife? Did Amy get out again?

Iris flicks over a few more pages. A woman who was convinced that the wireless was somehow killing them all. A girl who kept wandering away from the house at night. A Lady somebody who kept attacking a particular servant. A Cockenzie fishwife who showed signs of libidinous and uncontrolled behaviour. A youngest daughter who eloped to Ireland with a legal clerk. Iris is just reading about a Jane who had the temerity to take long, solitary walks and refuse offers of marriage, when she is overtaken by a violent sneeze once, twice, three, four times.

She sniffs and searches her pockets for a tissue. The records room seems to be oddly silent after her sneezes. She glances around. It is empty apart from the man behind the desk and another man peering closely at something on a blue-lit microfiche screen. It seems strange that all these women were once here, in this building, that they spent days and weeks and months under this vast roof. As Iris turns out her pockets, it occurs to her that perhaps some of them are still here, like Esme. Is Jane of the long walks somewhere within these walls? Or the eloping youngest daughter?

ABOUT 'THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX': 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?

MY THOUGHTS: It is many years since I first read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell. While I may have forgotten the plot, I had not forgotten how bittersweet, sad, touching, yet absolutely magnificent this book was.

There are three narrators to this story: Esme, who has been incarcerated in Cauldstone, euphemistically called a psychiatric hospital where she has been incarcerated for more than sixty years; her older sister Kitty who now suffers from Alzheimer's and is in a care home; and finally Iris, Kitty's granddaughter, Iris's great-neice who inherits her great-aunt when Cauldstone is closed down. The story is told over two timelines, from Kitty and Iris's childhood through their womanhood, and the current day.

Each of the narrator's stories is spellbinding. We learn a lot of Kitty's story through her rambling and mostly disjointed thoughts. One thought will lead her to another without the first having been completed. You would think that this would be extremely annoying, but it's not. It is a glimpse into the mind of someone with a form of dementia, where the past becomes the present. She does not recognize Iris, expecting her to still be a small child in a pretty dress, not a confident young woman.

Kitty was the 'good' child, the peacekeeper. Esme was enquiring, inventive, fiesty, independent. Rules were made to be broken. Iris didn't want the responsibility of her chronically insane great-aunt. She has enough on her plate with her vintage clothing business, a grandmother with Alzheimer's, a married lover, and her step-brother Alex. She doesn't have room in her life for any more complications.

This is a complex and compelling story. It combines a historical exposè of mental health treatment with the modern dilemma of what happens to those people who were confined for the majority of their lives when there was nothing wrong with them other than they were an embarrassment to their families.

The characters are incredibly interesting and believable. There are historic family secrets, and modern dilemmas. O'Farrell has written beautifully, capturing both the emotions of the characters and the atmosphere and social mores of the time with both accuracy and occasional flashes of humor.

There are books that stay with us for a long time. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is one such book for me.


THE AUTHOR: Born in Northern Ireland in 1972, MAGGIE O'FARRELL grew up in Wales and Scotland and now lives in London. She has worked as a waitress, chambermaid, bike messenger, teacher, arts administrator, and journalist in Hong Kong and London, and as the deputy literary editor of The Independent on Sunday.

DISCLOSURE: I own my copy of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, written by Maggie O'Farrell, published by Headline Review. All opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own personal opinions.

For an explanation of my rating system please refer to my Goodreads.com profile page or the about page on sandysbookaday.wordpress.com

This review and others are also published on Twitter, Instagram, and my webpage https://sandysbookaday.wordpress.com/...
Profile Image for Laysee.
490 reviews225 followers
January 27, 2022
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox held me spellbound as I traced the life of Esme Lennox, a supposedly batty, elderly woman let loose from an asylum after sixty years.

Set in the Edwardian era, the story is rich with details of life in the early twentieth century that imprisoned young women in unquestioning conformity to inane social conventions, dress codes, and Scottish propriety that, to my modern mind, are stifling enough to drive anyone crazy.

We are introduced to Esme and her older sister Kitty who have spent their childhood days in India. Whereas Kitty is always immaculately attired, timid, and obedient to a fault, Esme often loses a glove or ribbon, is restless, free-spirited, out-spoken, and rebellious. Esme is considered a difficult child, disliked by her parents, and often punished. At sixteen, an unfortunate encounter at a party precipitated Esme’s confinement in Cauldstone Asylum. Her pleas to be spared were ignored.

Sixty years later, Cauldstone Asylum is to be closed. Iris Lockhart, a young woman who owns a vintage clothing shop, receives shocking news that she is the legal guardian of Esme Lennox, a great aunt she does not know she has, and tasked to take care of her. Even her grandmother, Kitty, now a dementia patient in a nursing home, is not much of a help in throwing light on Esme’s plight. What is to become of Esme Lennox? Iris has no intention of ‘adopting’ a conceivably dangerous relative who is a total stranger.

The story unfolds in a series of monologues that reward the attentive reader. Esme and Kitty’s life is revealed via flashbacks to their childhood and youth in India and Scotland, and their lives in the present. It was disorienting at first as Iris’ own story alternated between Esme and Kitty’s reflections. What I found most fascinating were the nuanced turns of phrases that left hints of what had transpired in the past. O’Farrell’s narrative approach here reminded me of that in The Hand That First Held Mine in which clues to the present mystery were strategically strewn like a trail of breadcrumbs that culminated in a shattering denouement of the truth. O’Farrell’s handling of the ‘show not tell’ technique is superb. The reader is left to connect the dots and draw his or her own conclusions.

Like Iris, I was left stunned and speechless when the secrets of Esme and Kitty’s past came to light. The ending too had the touch of Gothic horror, one I did not expect if I could trust my own breadcrumb trail following skills. One thing I knew for sure - Esme was more sinned against than sinning. She certainly deserved better. Five brilliant stars.
Profile Image for Mark .
367 reviews298 followers
February 15, 2022
If I could describe The Vanishing of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell in one word, it would be – “ disturbing ”.

This story begins with the Lennox family in 1930s India, the writing here was beautiful – O’Farrell really did paint a vivid picture of this kaleidoscopic country. The family then move to Edinburgh, Scotland. The mother and father expect a certain degree of decorum from their two daughters – Kitty and Esme, pretty much a sign of the times and a prerequisite of the upper-class.

Alas, poor Esme struggles, quite willingly, to reach the benchmarks set for her by her parents and polite society. For example, the wearing of gloves for young ladies in public is pretty much standard. Kitty happily complies, Esme is a conscientious objector. She feels like a “Horse on show”.

Nowadays, Esme would probably (or possibly) be diagnosed as belonging on some sort of psychological spectrum. The way O’Farrell describes her thinking, indicates a certain way of looking at the world. She has recurring thoughts on patterns, numbers and isn’t so interested in people, social niceties, social interactions. Or maybe she would just be considered a ‘free spirit’ today? Perhaps, in these times Esme would be thought of as one of those wonderful, interesting, people you meet – fun, blunt, odd, a bit tricky but never dull. You know the type.

Esme becomes a little too much for her parents (her father is a miserable bastard I think) and she ends up in an institution. For over sixty years!! Perhaps this occurred a little too frequently back in the day – I do recall the story of JFK’s sister Rosemary Kennedy, who had a frontal lobotomy as a young woman and was eventually institutionalised. She was forgotten by most of the Kennedys. Rosemary’s story, and symptoms, were quite different to Esme’s – but there is a parallel here. That is, the way some families (perhaps many) discarded wayward children and submitted them to grossly inappropriate, barbaric treatment, institutionalisation and ultimately banishment.

Oh my, how incredibly sad. This tale is heartbreaking. There are times Esme is given false hope of leaving the asylum. These passages were abjectly distressing to read. The weight of consequence on the life of poor Esme is unbearable. Imaging living it.

We do catch up with Esme after her 60 years of incarceration, through her great niece Iris. Iris’ story is set in contemporary times, it’s is very interesting too. I loved it. I won’t spoil what happens, suffice to say, the ending is something I didn’t expect, it shook me.

There is so much detail about this story I should have mentioned. However, I can’t move away from the emotional impact of this multi-faceted tale. To me, that is the whole point of a story – how it makes one feel.

What a powerfully, sad, upsetting, and unsettling story. I don’t know what else to say apart from “Maggie, you’ve done it again!”. Brilliant.


One a lighter note – from the book

did you know that two and a half thousand left-handers are killed each year using things made for right-handed people”.

I hope this provides food for thought to those (let’s say ‘self-centred’) right-handers amongst us and provides insight into the difficulties us (let’s say selfless and decent) lefties must put up with, day in, day out.

Our existence is precarious. #Proud&Left
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,106 reviews3,877 followers
March 6, 2023
“Vestis virum facit” (clothes maketh the man) - Erasmus.
Quite ordinary clothes can have a totemic power over our memories. Clothes are draped over this story of how sixteen-year old Esme was locked up in a mental asylum for sixty years.

It opens with “whirling skirts” at a dance, and one girl in “a dark red frock that doesn’t suit her”. Thereafter, all significant events are subtly marked by an iconic item of clothing - and one of the main characters has a vintage clothes shop.

A careful tangle

The story is cleverly told, with a mix of points of view, timelines, and tenses. Although it leaves loose ends, the main plot points are all predictable. That doesn’t matter because the real fascination is in the rustle of burgundy taffeta, the frantic longing for a length of green cloth, the “cold caress” of a silk negligee belonging to another, a switched blazer, a borrowed jacket, and the feel of pebbles beneath one’s feet.

Image: The cold caress of red silk (Source)

The main strands are Esme’s childhood and her old age. In the latter, the asylum is about to close and a young woman called Iris is involved in what happens to her next.

Esme and Kitty grew up in a big house in a beautiful part of India. After a tragedy, the family “return” to the parents’ native Scotland. They move into their imperious grandmother’s Edinburgh home. Esme is intelligent, and a good pianist, but outspoken and unconventional. She resists the preparation for society and a good marriage that Kitty, six years older, accepts.

The threads of Esme, Kitty, and Iris’ lives are tangled to show the parallels, contrasts, and reversals.
We are all… 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.

Released at last, Esme’s quiet bewilderment at being “among unsuspicious people” who show small kindnesses is tragic, joyful, and understated. But it’s elderly Kitty who has the diatribe of grievances and no longer remembers whether she likes yoghurt.


There are scandals (yet a strange relationship in the contemporary story is barely portrayed as such because social mores have changed), but it’s the other meaning of “sensation” that matters. Throughout her life, Esme deconstructs sights and sounds, and is profoundly aware of tactile sensations. They are a form of self-soothing in the moment and, as memory hooks, they’re a source of comfort and sometimes pain. Her traumas, exacerbated by a code of silence, are explored via touch and the remembrance of it.

Image: Bare feet on a pebble beach (Source)

The edges of their white clothes shimmer in the heat. Esme narrows her eyes until her parents blur into two hazy shapes, her mother a triangle and her father a line.
Esme can unfocus her eyes and unsee the world around. In this quasi-fugue state, she becomes almost invisible herself - two of at least three types of titular vanishing.

She stares and stares until they begin to lose their third dimension, until they begin to look unfamiliar, insubstantial. Like the way words said over and over become just a slurry of sound.
She hears trees crying as they leak rubber, tunes out conversation, and is the only blurry person in a family photo.

To modern eyes, she has traits of PTSD, high-functioning ASD and maybe OCD (she notes the numbers 9 and 28, but 6, 16, and 60 are significant in the story).


• “The scratch of lace, the heat of a body underneath white cotton.”

• “Ladders of sun drop through the gaps in high buildings.”

• “The ritualised publicising of a private relationship, the endless speeches given by men on behalf of women.” [weddings]

• “She walks slowly. She wants to feel the prick, the push of every bit of gravel under her shoe. She wants to feel every scratch, every discomfort of this… her leaving walk.”

• “She finds herself haunted by the life she has left, been pulled out of.”

See also

• The ease with which people could be condemned to a lifetime in a psychiatric institution was explored in the Rosenhan pseudopatient experiment, aka the “thud” experiment.

• There was a “mental hospital” near where I grew up. Most of the residents were there for life, a few because they had mild learning difficulties, but many put away by husbands or parents for being unruly or pregnant out of wedlock. Some of them were allowed into the village at weekends to buy sweets from the shop or attend church. It was one of two such institutions featured in a 1981 exposé, Silent Minority. It closed in 1993. The residents were sent to semi-independent living, and the mansion was converted to hugely expensive apartments, HERE.

Image: A newspaper response to “Silent Minority”: “New deal urged for mentally ill”, though many of the patients weren’t mentally ill when they were committed. (Source)

• Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture also features the mysteries surrounding an elderly woman who's lived most of her life in such an institution that is about to be closed down. See my review, HERE.

• A more benign residential institution was my boarding school. I’ve just written about my time there, in lieu of a review of Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s Terms & Conditions, HERE.

• A young girl is sent away to family she doesn't know in Claire Keegan's Foster, HERE.

• People seeking lost relatives are a staple of fact (TV show Who Do You Think You Are? and Jeanette Winterson’s Why be Happy when you Could be Normal?) and fiction (The Wife of Martin Guerre and Cold Mountain, for example). People who have them thrust upon them are less common - but maybe comments will prove otherwise.
Profile Image for PorshaJo.
440 reviews656 followers
January 10, 2019
Rating 4.5

I kept seeing all these wonderful review for books by Maggie O'Farrell. I kept saying, oh I need to read her, that's one author I've yet to try, and I added her to my TBR pile.....where she remained for some time. Recently read another review by my GR friend Angela and I said now I must finally read one of her books. So I grabbed the audio version of this book and I must say....I'm hooked. I want to read all her books.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is....is....hauntingly beautiful, frightfully scary, wildly inventive. I'm not sure how to describe it. You get a glimpse of asylums of long ago, injustice, jealousy, family secrets, revenge, of being different, or just conforming to others ideas, and so much more. Esme Lennox has been in Cauldstone Hospital for sixty years but due to the hospital closing, she is being released. She is released to a family member listed as a contact, her niece, Iris. Iris's grandmother, Kitty, is in a home and has alzheimers, but she has always indicated that she was an only child. So the three of their 'stories' converge in a spectacular, heartbreaking way. The story slowly unfolds by rotating between Esme, Iris, and Kitty's view point.

I'm so glad I finally read this one and I can't wait to read more of O'Farrell's books. I've already ordered a few more. Now, the audio. This was a problem for me. The narrator has a wonderful voice and I loved her accent. I can still hear her voice. But the complex nature of the story, I think, did not lend well to audio. I grabbed the print and was reading after listening or switching back and forth. The book - it has no chapters, it switches quickly between the three points of views, changing so quickly. Audio required a lot of concentration and I truly felt that I'm missing this beautiful story and grabbed the print. Even now that I've finished the book, I still keep going back to the print. Overall, a wonderful read, one that I feel will haunt my dreams for some time.
Profile Image for Karen.
559 reviews1,105 followers
October 30, 2018
Such a powerful and heartbreaking story!
It’s so hard to imagine that a person, especially a female, back in the day.. could be institutionalized in a mental facility by a family member or spouse just by a signature, no proof.
Esme, of this story was put away for over 60 years!!
This is quite a story! I’m not giving any more info..best to go in blind, as I did.
Truly has a haunting ending!

Profile Image for Zoeytron.
1,025 reviews659 followers
April 19, 2019
As a young girl, Esme Lennox is taken kicking and screaming from the family home and committed to an asylum known as Cauldstone Hospital.  61 years later, the hospital is shutting down and the now elderly woman is released.  Esme was certainly an irregular weave as a child, prone to outrageous behavior that flew in the face of decorum, a continuing source of embarrassment for her sister and her parents.  But what on earth must she have done to warrant obliteration from her family?  Was she truly insane, or a victim of a grave injustice?  The idea of how a person can be effectively erased in this way is chilling.  

I am having trouble striking the tone I want with this review, but suffice it to say the story is unlike any I have read, original and haunting.
Profile Image for Dem.
1,184 reviews1,079 followers
March 20, 2019
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is a beautifully written and haunting story about a woman who has been unjustly incarcerated in a mental hospital at a very young age and has remained there for over sixty years. The hospital is now closing down and the inhabitants have to be rehoused. The story is set between the 1930s and the present day.

The story is intelligently told and the plot is really well-thought out so there were enough twists and turns to keep me engrossed and intrigued. The way Maggie O Farrell writes is just exquisite, so beautifully descriptive that I was carried away and felt totally drawn into the story and life of Esme Lennox. The character development is perfect and sometimes in a book you come across a character that you completely fall in love with and I fell in love with the character of Esme.

This is a short novel but the author does not waste a single word, she really is able to convey so many emotions in each chapter.

I love haunting and intriguing novels and The vanishing Acts of Esme Lennox was exactly what I love.

I did find myself having to re-read certain paragraphs in this book especially the narrative of Kitty as this is one of those books the you need to pay attention while reading or you may get a little lost.

Re-read this book for a book club read and I enjoyed this book all over again, I really enjoyed the characters of Esme and Kittly and loved the parallels drawn between Iris and Esme's life. Look forward to the discussion on this one.
Profile Image for Esil.
1,118 reviews1,328 followers
August 10, 2018
The only other book I have read by Maggie O’Farrell is I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, which I loved. Having now read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, I see that O’Farrell has incredible talent. Her writing is phenomenal and her perspective on people, relationships and life is scary insightful. Iris finds out that she has a great aunt — Esme — she never knew existed who has been living in a psychiatric hospital for 60 years. Iris takes her great aunt home as the hospital is closing. The story is told from the perspectives of Iris, Esme and Kitty. Kitty is Iris’ grandmother and Esme’s sister, and she is suffering from Altzheimers. It turns out that there’s a heartbreaking backstory to Esme’s hospitalization. She is odd but certainly not mentally ill. Esme’s story comes out slowly through snippets of consciousness and memory from both Esme and Kitty. They spent their early childhood in India, and then moved to Edinburgh at a time when social norms were painfully rigid and there was no language available to discuss many topics. In such a world, Esme’s oddness makes her horribly vulnerable. And the ending is quite something. Beautiful, infuriating and heartbreaking. This book makes me want to read all of O’Farrell’s books. Thanks to Debbie for putting this one on my radar.
Profile Image for JimZ.
996 reviews433 followers
February 6, 2022
I was not planning to read this book in one sitting, but I could not put it down and so I read it in one sitting.

It was a horrific read. A reviewer’s comments on the back cover led me to believe she had the same feeling — “I would like to think that families only behave this way in books, but unfortunately betrayal, jealousy, and secrets are all too common in real life.”

While it was a horrific read it was a very good read. This was published in 2006...where the hell was I? I only ordered this book from the library because a Goodreads friend a couple of weeks ago was so enthusiastic about it.

I have no idea how Maggie Farrell came up with this idea, but it was certainly interesting. How anyone in their right mind could be bored by this novel would be a mystery to me.

Profile Image for Cheri.
1,707 reviews2,257 followers
June 28, 2020

I have been wanting to read Maggie O’Farrell’s novels for the last couple of years, ever since I first read my friend Angela’s review of This Must Be the Place and I’d long planned to read some of these books that I’d had on my list to-read for too long, and so I’d scheduled a period of time to devote just to those books. There are so many I doubt I will get to them all, but I began this by reading O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - not because I’d chosen to read this one first, but because it was available through my library. I’m so glad that I did, this is beautifully written, heartbreaking, tragic and unputdownable.

”Her body sways like a branch in the wind and her stockinged feet pass over the carpet very lightly. Her head is so full of the tune and the cool swish of silk that she doesn’t hear the people coming up the stairs, she doesn’t hear anything. She has no idea that in a minute or two the door will fly open and they will be standing there in the doorway, looking at her. She hears the music and she feels the dress. That is all. Her hands move about her like small birds.”

”And Esme sees what might be. She shuts her mouth, closes her throat, folds her hands over each other and she does the thing she has perfected. Her speciality. To absent yourself, to make yourself vanish.”

This story is recounted through several viewpoints, through the stories of Iris, Esme, and Esme’s sister Kitty. Both Esme and Kitty are now elderly, and Kitty, grandmother of Iris, is in a care facility, an Alzheimer’s patient. Esme has just been released into the care of Iris, and Iris is still trying to piece together how this woman she never knew existed until days before has come to be her responsibility, to be in her life.

While the story that unfolds is a relatively fast read, it does skip from one narrator to another without much to mark the difference except breaks from one paragraph to a new one, an extra line or two in space, and someone else is relaying their views – still, I was always aware of the change in narrator when it happened, so I didn’t find it to be confusing, and I felt it gave a broader view of the overall story.

”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 the world as anagrams of our antecedents.”


Many thanks to Angela, whose reviews prompted me to read so many books!
Angela’s review for The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox:

Angela’s review for “This Must Be the Place”

Many thanks, also, to the Public Library system, and the many Librarians that manage, organize and keep it running, for the loan of this book!
Profile Image for Linda.
1,190 reviews1,236 followers
February 11, 2021
"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."

But oh, dear readers, the human spirit is far more complicated and intricately designed in the tiny capsule of our infancy to the worned and weathered surface of an aged existence. We stand on the precipice of the new and never touched. We whisper secrets to others for safekeeping and desperately hope that ours find a sacred place to land.

Maggie O'Farrell presents a storyline that will hold you fast to the page. She will walk us over jagged terrain while many of us will lose our footing. Dark corners, unexplained entrances and exits, voices with confusing sources and an ending that will force you to lean back in your chair.

Iris Lockhart is the owner of a small vintage clothing shop. She rearranges items in the store window to give the greatest appeal to shoppers. She's interrupted by a phone call informing her that she has a great aunt Esme. Iris denies the relation since her grandmother was an only child. But Esme's papers cannot be denied. After being a patient at the now closing Cauldstone Hospital for sixty-one years, Esme is being released to her family. And that family is Iris.

O'Farrell brings us to Iris' refusal to take any responsibility for Esme. Iris is fearful in some respects to take on a complete stranger with psychiatric problems. She concedes to finding a new place for Esme and takes her home with her. Tightly wound, Iris begins to open and respond to Esme who is turning out to be a highly eccentric individual filled with bits and pieces of astounding memories. Iris intends to fit the pieces together in order to find the truth of who she really is. She being Esme and she being Iris.

And Iris, herself, has a knotted past and a knotted present. She has been in a relationship with a man who keeps her on the fringes. And there is nothing but confusion and uncertainty about another relationship that she's currently pondering. Iris has difficulty coming face-to-face with reality. And is that in the hand-me-down genetics or of her own making?

There's no denying the brilliance of Maggie O'Farrell's writing. I'm not gonna lie. She drove me to madness at times with her disjointed passages grabbing the voice and perspective of a shadowy character unnamed in the moment. But it was like that individual was leaning over your shoulder whispering unfinished business. I gasped every time at how that injection worked. You are a crafty one, Maggie O'Farrell, and why I've added you to my favorite authors with my highest respect.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,226 reviews452 followers
March 13, 2022
I spent 2 days with this book because I couldn't stop reading. This afternoon I had 5 pages left, my husband walks in from a bike ride, and I'm just thinking, "you couldn't stay gone another 5 minutes?"

Esme is committed to an asylum when she's 16, basically because she's a free spirit being raised in a conservative, socially correct family. She stays there for 60 years, until the institution has to shut down, her only living relative is a great niece, who never knew she existed, and has problems of her own. The story is told in several different voices, going back and forth between past and present in all of them, and was done so smoothly that I never once got lost. Social opinion, sibling rivalry, cold, unloving parents and secrets that come to light late in the game.......all kept me reading til the end.

This is a book that has been recommended to me countless times, by many readers who share my tastes, and I finally took the plunge. I read and loved Hamnet a few months ago, so this was my sophomore book by Maggie O'Farrell. Fortunately, she's been writing for a while, so I've got more to look forward too.
Profile Image for Anna.
27 reviews9 followers
October 29, 2007
This book just ends. That's it. You have to really use your imagination to understand what happens. The story was good, I just would like it to have ended different. And there were a couple of subplots that did not play out, even though the author could have done something with them.
Profile Image for Lori  Keeton.
450 reviews91 followers
March 25, 2022
Let me first say that this read is the result of reading several fantastic and captivating GR friends’ reviews in just the past month or so - thank you Mark, Anne and Janelle - for the push to grab this one quickly. I mean, three 5 star ratings from trusted friends is a pretty good sign to drop everything and read this one now! So I made it happen and WOW! Just can’t put into words how affecting this story is.

Another huge deal for me is that this is my very first Maggie O’Farrell. I know, I know…I’m way late to the party but boy I’m sure glad that I arrived. I will not let her novels get away from me for too long now that I have one under my belt. Everything about this particular novel was just mesmerizing. O’Farrell kept the curiosity and questions going through my mind about how these characters’ stories would connect until the bitter end. She really knew how to drop little bits of clues as the flashbacks happen for our main character, Esme Lennox. Iris Lockhart’s story was the ribbon that tied it all together and Kitty Lennox/Lockhart’s demented recollections provided just enough anticipation and intrigue to make me read through this in 2 days!

And Esme sees what might be. She shuts her mouth, closes her throat, folds her hands over each other and she does the thing she has perfected. Her speciality. To absent yourself, to make yourself vanish.

Esme Lennox, a misunderstood and carefree child, has had a sad and heartbreaking life for 61 years. The asylum where she was committed when she was 16 is closing while an unknown great niece, Iris Lockhart, receives a phone call that she is her next of kin and needs to come to take Esme home. Neither knew of the existence of the other but the few days they spend together are fast paced and revealing. We are given glimpses into the lives of these 3 women who each have their own tangled stories to tell and secrets to reveal. Esme’s troubled childhood is revealed through her memories. She grew up in a time that would label her free spirit and inability to conform to the rules of society as rebellious behavior and ultimately madness. Esme’s sister, Kitty’s portion of the story is more disjointed and disorganized for a woman now suffering from dementia. Her thoughts ramble and wander at times seeming random and aimless but by the end their purpose becomes known. Iris’s story is one of a modern, independent woman who has her own complicated relationships to work through. This is such a maddening (excuse the pun) and aggravating story that sheds so much light on the burdens of family secrets, jealousy, trauma, betrayal and injustice in regards to women and “madness”. A dark and haunting tale that left my heart racing.

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.
Profile Image for Carol.
347 reviews321 followers
March 2, 2015
Unforgettable book with a stunning ending that will haunt me for some time to come. This is an outstanding book and a tragic and disturbing story...believable because what was done to Esme may not have been a rare occurrence for women in that time. As a child and young woman, Esme was naïve yet spirited…an independent thinker, which confounded her family. It is no secret that Esme was locked away in an institution for 61 years. The story is told from three points of view to gradually reveal the mystery of Esme’s heartbreaking family history. Four stars only because those three points of view as well as the past and present time frames are sometimes confusing and hard to follow.

Profile Image for Anne .
435 reviews344 followers
March 14, 2022
I just finished my second reading (audio) of this novel. I am in awe of Maggie O'Farrell's ability to so deftly create a complex narrative with multiple story lines that weave seamlessly in and out of each other. It is very easy for me to get a bit lost with this type of novel especially on audio but I did not get lost once. I don't know how she does it but O'Farrell is the queen of multiple storylines showing off her talent here again with each narrator's story being equally vivid, compelling and spellbinding. and then she writes brilliant sentences which make me stop, reflect and admire:

"We begin in the world as anagrams of our antecedents."

This is the second book in a row that I've read about women who are institutionalized early in life simply because they did not fit into the social or religious norms of the time and place in which they live. The other novel was The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. The women in both books are cruelly misunderstood and both are forgotten and remain in the asylum for 60 years with both books looking back at their lives prior to incarceration. The similarities end there except that both books are superbly written. It was very interesting to read one after the other and to compare how two fine Irish authors deal with the same topic.
Profile Image for Phrynne.
3,152 reviews2,003 followers
August 30, 2015
This is a lovely, lovely book and I am amazed I have not read it before. I did not know what I was missing! It's not an easy book to review because you do need to come to it with no preconceived ideas about the content. Enough to say that it involves a family, a lot of memories about the past and a rather good ending! The writing is just beautifully done especially the way the author moves between the memories of Kitty and Esme, dropping clues along the way so the reader can begin to understand the actual truth of things. In many ways it is a mystery and as it unfolds the reader begins to understand Esme and grieve with her for what she has lost.
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,306 reviews658 followers
February 7, 2021
Maggie O’Farrell’s “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox” left me sad, so very sad. And enraged, I was reminded of the previous laws allowing individuals to be committed to insane asylums for little cause. O’Farrell reminds the reader of those yester-years, when parents committed daughters for not marrying the person, they want them to marry, or for being “difficult”. In this story, poor Esme was committed for being difficult. Her mother didn’t like her, her father found her unreasonable. Esme refused to comply to social conventions of being lady-like.

O’Farrell’s story really begins when Iris Lockhart receives a phone call asking her to fetch her Great Aunt Esme. Iris had no knowledge of such a relative. Her grandmother always proclaimed that she was a single, with no brother or sister. Perplexed, Iris checked this out. And yes, there is a Great Aunt there. Iris undertakes some sleuthing and finds that there are women in there who “took long walks”, or “refused to wear their hair appropriately”. In Esme’s file, she was committed because she was found wearing her mother’s clothes and dancing in front of a mirror”. Yikes!!

Iris herself is defying social conventions in that she is not interested in getting married. In fact, she’s not really interested in being stuck to one man. As such a person, she finds the fact that her great-aunt Esme being locked up at age 16 to be horrifying. Yet, she is concerned in that Esme has been institutionalized for over 60 years.

Esme’s sister, Kitty (Iris’s grandmother) is in a home now because of dementia. Iris attempts to discover the story behind Esme’s confinement, but Kitty is no help. Kitty is stuck in her fogged mind, only remembering bits and pieces in no logical order.

The reader, however, follows the mad ramblings of Kitty along with poor Esme’s spotty memories. It’s so very sad, this story. There are events that led to Esme’s internment. O’Farrell alternates between the current time of Esme becoming known to Iris and Esme’s childhood. I listened to the audio, performed by Anne Flosnik. It took me some effort to determine who is rambling/narrating their story. Kitty and Esme both are difficult to follow, and O’Farrell writes their pieces in “dream-like” fashion. It most likely would be easier to follow while reading the story. This novel is free on Audible Plus, so I loved taking advantage. I highly recommend the free listen.
Profile Image for Katie.
261 reviews333 followers
April 19, 2022
In less skilful hands this could easily have been an implausible story too heavy with melodrama. Its ingenuity is in its structure and understatement. In fact, very cleverly O'Farrell makes the modern woman most guilty of melodrama despite her problems being relatively minor. At the heart of the story is Esme, an exuberant young girl who will spend almost her entire adult life in an asylum as a result of a jealous sister and an obsession on the part of her parents with appearances of respectability. The story is fabulously unravelled by the author with the seemingly effortless complexity of a spider spinning its web.
Profile Image for Beverly.
783 reviews276 followers
March 25, 2022
It always amazes me how far people will go to get what they want or get revenge, even on their own flesh and blood. Also, Victorian laws were draconian, especially in the ease with which, your wife or daughter could be institutionalized for being "different" or "having a mind of their own".

Esme Lennox of the title has been imprisoned for 60 years, that's right I said 60, for not going along with what her family wanted her to do, for not conforming to the social mores of her day. She gets out of the mental asylum through a lucky break. It is being closed. Her family, in the form of a grandneice, Iris, doesn't even know she exists. Esme's sister Kitty has gone to great lengths to keep her a secret, telling everyone she was an only child. Now Kitty has Alzheimer's and it is up to Iris to decide what to do for her long lost great-aunt.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,415 reviews533 followers
November 20, 2018
[4.5] This haunting novel leaves most of Esme’s life to the reader’s imagination. For me that made her story even more powerful and sad. And infuriating - I was so angry with her family. O’Farrell brilliantly meshes the narratives of Iris, Kitty and Esme in a way that keeps illuminating and moving the novel forward. And the ending is quite fascinating...and hopeful too. I love that Iris doesn't let go.
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book460 followers
July 10, 2020
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 The Secret Scripture.

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.
November 8, 2021
“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.”

These are the profound words from sixteen-year-old girl Esme Lennox, a young girl who dared to be different, who dared to think and dream, who dared to want more from being a woman and who wanted to chart her own course in life, not the one her parents have predestined for her and not married to a man of her parents choosing.

”And Esme sees what might be. She shuts her mouth, closes her throat, folds her hands over each other and she does the thing she has perfected. Her speciality. To absent yourself, to make yourself vanish.”

A young independent woman whose aspirations and thirst for a life that was different led to her being institutionalised by her own parents for 60 years. This is where the story starts when Iris, granddaughter, of Kitty Esme’s sister receives a phone call from Cauldstone Hospital breaking the news that her great aunt is being released revealing a family secret that Kitty kept for over 60 years. She was not an only child.

What ensues is the story of Esme, the unforgiveable decisions taken, the resolute and ill placed righteousness of the people who judged her insane, the people who watched and did nothing, and the disclosure of events that led to her incarceration. However, the undercurrent of mental health versus "being different" continues as a thread through the novel and suggests that Esme is a product of her own family’s vulnerabilities and shaped by family traits passed from generation to generation as the dark and mysterious past and untold secrets are unspooled with devastating consequences.

The story is heart-breaking, unjust, and shocking as it opens a whole new world of mental health and attention deficit disorder, that is sensitively nuanced and told with real heart that provides a touching insight into human behaviour, making this a fascinating and troubling experience for the reader. At the same time, it opens the debate of who decides a person is insane, what defines insanity and what is the best method for dealing with mental health or someone that is just simply different and refuses to fit the mould.

Maggie O’Farrell once again delivers a story with vivid imagery, touching storylines with real and thought-provoking content. A great story again from a wonderful author.
Profile Image for Janelle.
1,125 reviews136 followers
March 2, 2022
Wow, that was so hard to put down! Sad, disturbing, infuriating how women who didn’t conform to societal norms were treated, how easy it was to lock a young woman in an asylum for life.
At the start of this book Iris receives a phone call saying she is the last known relative of Esme Lennox, and the asylum she is in is closing and what does she want to do with her…. Imagine hearing about a great aunt you had no idea existed, and that she has been in an asylum for over 60 years.
The narrative swaps between the present, Esme’s dreamlike memories and the chopped up conversation of her sister, Kitty now demented in a nursing home. At first this is unsettling but as the book continues and the story unfolds it’s a rush to find out what happened and then the ending….
A brilliant read!
Profile Image for Bianca.
1,022 reviews880 followers
November 24, 2018
3.5 stars (still can't decide if I round up or down)

Many of my friends loved this novel, so I was happy to get my hands on it.

First of all, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox wasn't as literary as I expected it to be.
That's not that important, but after reading O'Farrell's memoir, I thought this would belong in the literary fiction category. It's a page-turner and around page eighty, I was invested in the story.

Why was Esme Lennox in an institution for the mentally ill for over sixty years and how come nobody in the family ever mentioned her name? These are questions that Iris Lockard is trying to find the answers to as she finds herself the guardian of this unknown woman who turns out to be her great-aunt.

Esme Lennox's story is a tragic one and it brings up how easily men, and families, disposed of the women who didn't conform, who were different. I thought to myself, this novel is going to gut me and leave me emotionally deplete. Incredibly enough, it didn't happen. It had many ingredients that made it very readable, some confusing paragraphs, side romances and a brusque, vague ending, which was anti-climatic.

While the premise of this novel was excellent, I wasn't as affected by the story, some of the characters weren't fully fleshed out, so in the end, I felt dissatisfied.
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