Esme Lennox is a young woman who was sent to an asylum by her family in the 30’s, for being eccentric, unruly, disobedient. For her parents, it is unthinkable that she prefers books to prospective husbands, or studying to putting together a trousseau. After a crisis brought by dramatic events known only to herself, they just decide to put her away and forget about her…

Sixty years later, the asylum is about to close, and they contact Esme’s next of kin, a young woman named Iris Lockhart, who has no clue that she has a great-aunt at all. Iris has a life of her own, a stepbrother, Alex, with whom she has no blood connection but an ambiguous and strong relationship, and a lover, Luke, who is married. When Iris receives the news about Esme, she doesn’t want to take responsibility for a person she has heard about for the first time in her life, but curiosity prompts her to meet her nonetheless. Soon, Iris realizes that she will not be able not to care about what happens to this riddle called Esme, and she also realizes that Esme is not the lunatic she was led to believe she is. Over a weekend, Iris will learn more about the mysterious Esme, and discover things about her family she was far from suspecting, and that will change her life…

I liked The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, first because it is a well-written novel, and also because the story is enthralling, if a bit puzzling at the beginning, because it is narrated in fragments and from multiple points of view, and the change of points of view is not easy to spot at first, so that it may take a bit longer to get hooked to the story. The three point of views are Esme’s, Iris’s and Esme’s sister Kit’s, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and therefore whose narration comes in fragmented and incomplete memories.

According to reviews I have read of the novel, some readers felt that the subplot involving Luke and Alex is useless, but I disagree: Iris’s complicated life, her feelings for her stepbrother and her affair with a married man show how times have changed since the thirties, and how women have become free to live their lives as they wish. In Esme’s times, Iris’s behavior might have sent her to the asylum too…

Before reading Maggie O Farrell’s novel, I have read The Outcast, by Sadie Jones, and it strikes me that both novels deal with children driven to the breaking point because they are forbidden to grieve and must instead repress their feelings, and dramatically fail to do so. However, I found The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox superior to The Outcast, and free-spirited Esme a more compelling character that Lewis…

Rating: 4/5