I picked up the delightful The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell at Barnes & Noble for a steal of $3.98. And while the book’s binding fell apart, this story held up.
Iris Lockhart runs a vintage dress shop, sleeps with a married man, and may be in love with her step-brother. As if that isn’t enough of a complicated life, she gets a phone call from a local mental asylum which is closing its doors. They have a patient whose records list Iris as the nearest relative, and arrangements need to be made for her. This woman is Esme Lennox, Iris’s grandmother Kitty’s sister, who was never mentioned to Iris or any of her family. Her grandmother Kitty has Alzheimer’s, and so Iris has power of attorney over Esme. Through Esme and Kitty, we are transported to the time when they were girls in India, and then Scotland. Her family sees Esme as too headstrong, too stubborn, and too spirited, characteristics which, at the time, were enough to institutionalize her at the age of 16. We are shown the rest of this story through the eyes of Iris, Esme, and Kitty.
I really enjoyed how each of the pieces of this story slowly came into one whole form. The writing was vibrant and original. I especially liked the sections told from the halting memories of Kitty. I had never read a narrative from the perspective of disjointed Alzheimer’s memories. Most modern women will see a part of themselves in strong-minded Esme, and we feel for Iris as she is forced to care for a relative who she didn’t know existed and who has been institutionalized for the past 60 years. This novel is tiny, and I think following these three women is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.