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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

This month the fiction book club read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell.  According to Contemporary Authors Online:  “The novel begins when Iris Lockhart finds out that she has an aunt named Esme who is being released from the Cauldstone Hospital, a psychiatric asylum where she has been sequestered for more than sixty years.  Esme is the sister of Iris’s grandmother, Kitty, who never acknowledged Esme’s existence.  Although Esme has been deemed fit to reenter society, here reemergence into Iris’ well-to-do family brings with it a host of family secrets, including the fact that Esme was incarcerated in the hospital primarily because she was a nonconformist, not because she was insane.”

The evening discussion group was so rapt in The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox that the hour vanished as well as Esme!  One topic of conversation was the unusual format of the book.  There are no chapters and the speaker, the time and the location all switch repeatedly without notice.  The reader is left to figure out from the context who is speaking, when and where.  Those who had read the book in one or two sittings did not have much trouble with this kaleidoscopic narrative, but those who read it in several short sittings were confused and missed a plot twist. 

Both the evening and the morning groups were intent on discovering the similarities and differences between the two main female characters, Esme and Iris.  They were cut from the same cloth, belonged to the same family, but being of different generations, Esme and Iris had vastly different life experiences and expectations. We were given a lot to think about on this front.  When asked what they would take away from this book, several members said they were more understanding now of the debilitating societal pressures put on women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Please join us for the next fiction book club meeting on Tuesday, February 21st at 7pm or Thursday, February 23 at 10am when we will be discussing The Royal Physician’s Visit by Per Olov Enquist.  “Set in Denmark in the 1760’s, [The Royal Physician’s Visit] recreates the era of Danish history when physician Johann Friedrich Struensee, a student of Diderot and Voltaire, introduced reforms including freedom of the press and improved treatment of peasantry.” A Booklist review states:  “Enquist explosively expands this parenthesis in Danish history into an ironized romantic tragedy of a very high order, one that fills the reader with horror and pity on every page.” Don’t miss it.  Come pick up a copy at the reference desk.

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