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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  25,942 ratings  ·  3,657 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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Average rating 3.85  · 
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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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Sonia Gomes
Jan 23, 2009 rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Shawn Mooney (Shawn The Book Maniac)
I’m a bit late to the O’Farrell party, but I think I might be here to stay! A fascinatingly screwed-up woman discovers a great-aunt she never knew about, now released from a psychiatric institution after more than 5 decades; as secret after secret unfurls, as she begins to take responsibility for this aunt, the protagonist begins to own her own secret, illicit desires. In economical, deceptively simple prose, O’Farrell roped me all the way in.
Jan 17, 2011 rated it liked it
This is one of those stories that has all the components of greatness--a well-concieved, interesting trajectory, mystery, betrayal, tragedy, paralleling societal and family injustice and feminist themes. There are also some moments of lovely poetry in O'Farrell's writing style. I should have loved it, and I certainly gobbled it up, reading it much more voraciously than I usually read novels. But this novel is simply not fully formed, and therefore has left a number of reviewers unsatisfied. One ...more
D Dyer
2.5 stars.
I found the presentation of the story, it switches between multiple time periods and perspectives without clearly marking where we are in the story or who is speaking, to be interesting though it required a greater level of focus to keep track of the story and I can certainly see how that would not necessarily be appealing to everyone but the reason I have rated this book a bit lower than average has much more to do with the fact that the contemporary storyline, featuring Iris a woman
Ron Charles
Nov 16, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Maggie O'Farrell's three previous novels have been respectfully reviewed, but her new one radiates the kind of energy that marks a classic. Think Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Charlotte Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" or Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea: stories that illuminate the suffering quietly endured by women in polite society. To that list of insightful feminist tales add The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. At the heart of this fantastic new novel is a mystery you want to solve until you start ...more
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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.

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