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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  27,120 ratings  ·  3,802 reviews
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 sideste
Paperback, 277 pages
Published February 26th 2013 by Headline Review (first published 2006)
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Deborah Allin Dissociation is a huge part of being traumatised. If you have carried a secret or had to hide a truth for fear of the impact, it was as if you had to …moreDissociation is a huge part of being traumatised. If you have carried a secret or had to hide a truth for fear of the impact, it was as if you had to disappear or disconnect so on some level she disappears because it is the only way she can survive in a world which does not allow her to exist. Also a thought. Could the spectre in the garden be the lost child or someone else associated to her, or the ghost of her painful experience.. just some thoughts. (less)
Polly McLean I thought that it was more to highlight the difference time has made to the way women's behaviour is judged. Iris's nonconformity to social norms isn'…moreI thought that it was more to highlight the difference time has made to the way women's behaviour is judged. Iris's nonconformity to social norms isn't considered especially odd and doesn't have any negative impact on her her life or well-being, while Esme's lesser nonconformity causes her to be deprived of her freedom for 61 years. (less)

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Aug 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People looking for a quick read with twisted family dynamics
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 a
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
Angela M
Aug 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Sandy *The world could end while I was reading and I would never notice*
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 ...more
Diane S ☔
Mar 07, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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 c ...more
Jan 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
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 beautiful, f
Jan 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Dem by: Book Club Read/ Sept
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 Maggi
Aug 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 clos ...more
Apr 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Oct 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 to go in blind, as I did.
Truly has a haunting ending!


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 firs
Oct 29, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone who likes not so good endings.
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. ...more
"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 despera
Aug 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
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 ...more
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
Nov 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018-favorites
[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. ...more
Hannah Gordon, Frances Grey and Eleanor Bron begin Maggie O'Farrell's highly acclaimed novel set between the conventions of 1930's Edinburgh and the freedoms of today.

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 Hospit
Shannon (Giraffe Days)
Every now and then you come across a book so perfectly whole, so complete in itself, that you marvel as you read. It has such flow, such control of style, such effortless prose, that it's almost impossible to put it down. Such a book is The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which I could have easily read in one sitting except I had to go to work.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is the story of three women and the burning secrets that affected them all. Iris Lockhart is a young, single, modern women
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 ho
Carmel Hanes
Sep 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
How can you love a book that you also want to throw against the wall?

You can when it captures heartbreaking injustice with withering clarity and style, speaks with unrelenting truth, and offers characters that are both ordinarily small and bigger than life. You can when it makes you care about a woman who's spent most of her life in an institution and the unspeakable reasons she was taken there and forced to remain. It can when the eloquent writing makes you want to jump into the pages to hold
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 refus ...more
Jan 01, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction
It is a book rather outside of what I usually read. I also expected something different. And while I enjoyed many parts of this story, it still isn't a book for me. That's why it's hard for me to review it or rate.

I expected a crime story. Meanwhile, it is a fiction or a women’s fiction. There is a small thread related to the mystery, but for most of the book we don't even know that there is some mystery we can wait for. Women’s fiction is not a genre that I particularly like or read often. But
The theme of this book is the ease with which women in the past could be incarcerated in an insane asylum, often simply at the whim of a family relative. A secondary theme is the subordinate role of women in times past. Get married and have kids; that was our role. Times have changed, thankfully, but even back then some women would not be shoved into that mold.

If you read two books that are similar, it is impossible not to make comparisons. I have not long ago read Anna Hope's book of historica
Betsy Robinson
Sep 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Completely without context, here are two quotes which I believe express Maggie O’Farrell’s raison d’etre for this astoundingly haunting book:
We are all, Esme decides, just vessels though 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. (118)

And then the next paragraph ends with:
She would like to feel the ceaseless drag of the currents flexing beneath her. But she fears it may frighten th
Connie G
Iris receives a phone call that her great-aunt Esme--who she never knew existed--was going to be released from Scotland's Cauldstone Hospital. (In the 1990s, many British patients were released from the confinement of mental hospitals. They had been institutionalized because their behavior did not fit in with polite society's norms, rather than because they were truly mentally ill.) Iris takes Esme home for the weekend to the older family home that Esme had lived in during her teen years.

The sto
May 11, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
If you like your books linear than this may not work for you. Told in three voices, there's a lot of jumping around and you could easily find yourself losing the rhythm and sequence of events. Stick with it and you're in for an exceptional story. One of the central themes is the ability to commit women to institutions for virtually any trumped up reason. All it took was a signature of a doctor and off she'd go. O'Farrell states "It is a novel I've wanted to write for a long time. I first had the ...more
Update: January 5, 2021
I stand by my 5-star review from October, 2020. This time around I noticed more and liked it perhaps even more than the first time around. If nothing else, I wasn't confused this time by all the abrupt changes of narrator.

Wow, just wow! This is a very hard-to-explain novel about two sisters, Esme and Kitty Lennox, who we meet in India where they live with their Brit family with whom they move as teens to Scotland to live with a grandmother. Then zoom! we are hurled into t
Sonia Gomes
Jan 23, 2009 rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sep 03, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The human brain is a tricky thing and O'Farrell has provided readers with a fascinating look into the psyche of three women in "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox." Iris learns of her great aunt's existence when the mental institution in which Esme has been living for the past 60 years contacts her about its upcoming closure. Her inability to go on living as though this woman never existed begins the unraveling of a dark family mystery that few could ever imagine possible.

Although female "hysteria
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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. ...more

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