Review: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

I have long felt that Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is an underrated member of the Austen pantheon. Yes, Cathy is a bit silly and Henry is sort of a drip, but I adore the sendup of the goofy Gothic novel genre. So perhaps I’m not quite the ideal audience for The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, the fifth book in the Contemporary Women’s Fiction collection, which embraces Gothic tropes with unreserved enthusiasm.

Edinburgh shop owner Iris Lockhart arrives one morning to find a mysterious letter waiting for her; later that day, she receives a phone call from a lawyer who tells her that she is the legal guardian of an elderly woman Iris has never heard of. Documents prove that Esme Lennox is the younger sister of Iris’s grandmother Kitty, but Kitty has always claimed she was an only child. Esme has been institutionalized since her teens and must be relocated now that the asylum where she’s staying is closing its doors for good.

It would have been hard for almost any book to live up to The Last Chinese Chef, but even so, I found The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox a bit of a disappointing read. First off, I disliked Iris right off the bat because she exhibits an almost criminal lack of curiosity in the early chapters of the book. If you were sent a mysterious letter and then received phone calls about a supposed relative you never knew existed, wouldn’t you be dying to find out what was going on? Or at least open the letter? Not Iris. Instead, she mostly ignores the letter and calls and then she’s rude to everyone who attempts to explain why Esme’s guardianship has fallen to her.

Then, when the plot requires it, Iris suddenly transforms into an indefatigable crusader who reads up on the history of asylums and is determined to do right by Esme. She gets no support from her friends and family — apparently all of the people Iris knows are horrible, since none of them can summon a shred of sympathy for an abandoned elderly woman. The only person in the book that I really cared about was Esme herself. The parts of the novel set during Esme’s teen years made me fall in love with the daffy oddball teenager, and I found myself wishing the elderly Esme had been released to a smarter and more interesting family.

Mostly, though, I think this book was just not for me. I’ve never been a big fan of soap operas or Gothic novels — I can’t hold back the sarcastic eye-rolls as the improbable plot twists pile up. I would have been interested if the book had focused on Esme’s commitment to the asylum and subsequent life outside it, but on top of the tragic institutionalized young beauty, we have married boyfriends, forbidden incest-y lust, vanishing babies, and guilty secrets in spades.* Each new shocking revelation diluted the impact of the shocking revelations before it, until I was inured to all future shocking revelations and wouldn’t have been surprised if Iris turned out to be a serial killer.

If a modern twist on a Gothic novel sounds like something you would adore, I recommend The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox unreservedly — it’s well-written and Esme’s plight is genuinely moving. For me, this was an intriguing but not particularly gripping read.

Rating: Library Loan/YMMV

* Food for thought: Why did this book leave me cold when I so adore The Woman in White, which features mistaken identities, kidnapping, poisonings, and secret societies? I think it’s because The Woman in White has compelling characters and crackles with energy and wit, while The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is somber and hyper-serious.


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