Book Review on Maggie O'Farrell's The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell coverAlthough I’ve read Maggie O’Farrell’s much acclaimed Hamnet, I haven’t read any of her other works. It was a pleasure to read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which was my book club’s choice.

Although I wouldn’t immediately pick up historical fiction, I found the storyline of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox intriguing. The protagonist Esme has spent most of her adult life locked away, through no fault of her own, in a psychiatric unit. The fate of young women like Esme and their utter dependence on family and the ease with which they could be cruelly and wrongly imprisoned, perhaps for simply being outspoken or headstrong, is a topic that fascinates and appalls me.

An aspect of the text that I found particularly poignant was the portrayal of Kitty’s internal turmoil and intricate justifications for her past actions, despite her struggle with Alzheimer’s. This juxtaposition of her lack of mental clarity, confined to the restrictions of the care home, with Esme’s newfound mental acuity is striking. It raises questions about the parallels and divergences between Kitty’s current state and Esme’s prolonged confinement, prompting reflection on the complexities of their respective situations.

Along with the exploration of Esme’s life, we are introduced to Iris, who we learned to be Esme’s great niece. Iris is presented as a modern-day heroine, perhaps feminist, in an unsatisfactory relationship with a married man. The reader is given insight into who she actually loves and how and why they are not romantically involved. There is a strong feeling that more will be uncovered after the final pages of the novel.

It is fascinating when reading the novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox to observe the cruel discipline and the dehumanized attitude to managing mental illness. Maggie O’Farrell completed extensive research on women being forcefully admitted into asylums in the writing of this book. This article makes for a shocking read: The Guardian.

I will try to avoid spoilers, but nevertheless must say that the ending of the novel is a huge shock. It is also ambiguous. What if what I think happens did happen? The question is, is it deserved?

Overall, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is not only a great page-turner, an unconventional romance, and at times almost a psychological thriller, it is at its heart the political and social critique of the shameful part of British history.

Book Club Questions on Maggie O'Farrrell's The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

  1. To what extent do you hold Kitty responsible for what happened to Esme in The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox? Discuss.
  2. What was the most dehumanizing aspect of Esme’s tenure in the asylum? Discuss.
  3. What do you think will happen to Esme after the end of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox? Discuss.
  4. How does the author’s use of a politicized historical setting in a fictional context impact your immersion in the story? Does the interplay between fiction and potential historical reality enhance or detract from your reading experience? Discuss.
  5. Discuss why you think Esme and Alex don’t become romantically involved.
  6. Do you think Esme’s (possible) desire for revenge is justified, considering the treatment she endured? And do you believe it is Kitty who deserves the consequences of this potential revenge? Discuss.
  7. How does The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennoxdepict the treatment of women in asylums during the historical period it portrays? What impact does this portrayal have on your understanding of the challenges faced by women at that time? Discuss.
  8. In the story, Kitty seems to compartmentalise her life and deny painful truths. How does this behavior affect her character development, and what does it reveal about the society and time in which she lives? Discuss.
  9. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennoxexplores themes of resilience and survival. How do the characters’ experiences in the face of adversity reflect broader societal attitudes towards mental health and women’s agency during the historical period depicted in the book? Discuss.

Book Club Question on The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (for if you haven't read the book)

  1. Despite not being blood relatives, Alex and Esme’s relationship in The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is intricate and multi-faceted. Explore the complexities of step-sibling relationships and how they are portrayed in literature, drawing on examples from other stories or real-life situations.
  2. Take a quick look at the article in the book review. Discuss the issues raised in it. Can you share insights into the historical context of asylums and the treatment of women in the 1930s? How did societal attitudes towards mental health shape the experiences of women during this time, and what impact did this have on the portrayal of characters like Esme in literature?
  3. In the novel, Esme initially believes her lover will leave his wife for her, but she later reconsiders her stance when she sees him with a very pregnant wife. Why do you think individuals make choices that have the potential to cause them harm, and how does this theme resonate with other literary works or real-life situations?
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