Iris Lockhart, a 20-something owner of a secondhand shop, receives a phone-call about her great-aunt Esme Lennox. The mental hospital where Esme has lived for the past 60 years is shutting down, and the doctors have Iris listed as Esme’s only relative. However, Iris has never heard of Esme Lennox.
Esme and her sister Kitty grew up in India. Their parents once took Kitty on a trip and left Esme at home with her nursemaid and baby brother. While they were gone, the nursemaid and brother caught typhoid. The other servants abandoned the house, leaving Esme alone with the dead bodies for three days. After the incident, Esme continued to talk about her little brother until she had sufficiently alienated her mother and father.
After the death of the baby, the family moved to their home country, Scotland. Despite all odds, Esme’s curious charms unwittingly captured her a suitor. Kitty was crushed when she found out that the boy liked her sister and not her. Resentment began to eat at the close relationship that the sisters once cherished. And when Esme’s relationship with the boy ends in a dramatic, horrific climax, her sister is no longer on her side.
At age 16, her family decided it was best to completely erase her from their lives and sent her to an asylum. Sadly, it was not unusual for women in the 1800s and early 1900s to be committed to an insane asylum for the most fragile of reasons. All a father, husband, or brother had to do was sign a piece of paper and that bothersome female would disappear.
Esme’s father refused to suffer her eccentricity any longer. She was feisty in a world that called for diffidence; she wanted to continue her education beyond secondary school; and she didn’t want to get married, all of which took an incredible toll on her family.
Oddly, completely normal reactions to being locked away and accused of an untruth appear mad. Esme’s insistence that she didn’t belong in the asylum only made her seem more crazy. When Kitty selfishly committed the ultimate betrayal, Esme was left alone and trapped with no hope of freedom until 60 years later.
The novel is a rich combination of Esme, Iris, and Kitty’s stories. You wade through a pool of partial narratives that overlap and crash into each other in search of the truth. Why has Iris never heard of her great aunt Esme? What did Kitty do that was so unspeakable?
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is a haunting story of familial betrayal, deeply buried secrets, and perpetual lies. It deals simultaneously with contemporary and antiquated issues. The ease with which Maggie O’Farrell transfers from each of the character’s voices is incredible. I couldn’t put this book down! The ending was shocking and nearly unsatisfying, but it was so brilliantly executed…
Just read it. You won’t be disappointed!
P.S. I couldn’t choose just one cover, so I picked all of them :)