The Magazine

Out of the Past

"A complex time scheme" by Lifetime Channel standards.

Nov 19, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 10 • By STEFAN BECK
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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

by Maggie O'Farrell

Harcourt, 256 pp., $23

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie O'Farrell's fourth novel, has received rave reviews in Marie Claire, Elle, and Good Housekeeping, but it would rather stick its head in the oven than be shelved with the confectioner's sugar that is "chick lit." Its website offers a reading guide with stimulating questions: "This is a novel with a very complex time scheme. What techniques does the author use to handle this?" There is also "suggested further reading," including Jane Eyre, The Bell Jar, and something probably very heavy called Hallucinating Foucault.

Esme Lennox does, however, have some good qualities in common with "chick lit." Like a tube of cookie dough after a painful breakup, it's "horrifyingly hard to put down" (She Magazine); it's as "gripping" (Time Out) as the garbage disposal that accidentally snatched your Cartier engagement ring. It proves beyond a doubt that literary fiction can be as entertaining and fast-paced as genre fiction. O'Farrell's novel may have a "complex time scheme," but it's never distracting, and the escalation of suspense is masterly and satisfying. It's the book's great weakness, in fact, that it belongs to the purlieu of the "literary." It's too thought-provoking for its own good.

What it provokes thoughts about is the mistreatment that free-spirited women were wont to endure in sepia-toned days of yore. Iris Lockhart's great-aunt, the titular Esme Lennox, has been released into her care by Cauldstone Hospital, an institution out of Dorothea Dix's ugliest nightmares, after over 60 years of confinement. The asylum is closing down, meaning Esme has triumphantly outlasted her captor. Not only that, she's perfectly compos mentis. This comes as a bit of a surprise to Iris, who'd never even been told that her great-aunt existed. And so, being something of a free-spirited woman herself, Iris sets out to unravel a tangled web of familial deceit and intrigue.

That web, true to the book's October release date, turns out to be the kind you get at Party City to decorate your shrubs: a tragic sibling rivalry, a dead baby, a rape, a stolen baby. As these horrors pile up, the reader begins to feel that no matter how fine the prose--"Above her, mimosa trees are shaking their heads at her, powdering the lawn with yellow dust"--the plot belongs more to a Lifetime Channel frightmare than to the Brontë sisters. And that gets to the heart of the problem with Esme Lennox, which is that, like a Lifetime movie, it can't be thrilling without also being hopelessly didactic.

Take Iris, our younger heroine. We learn within several pages that she's a slightly eccentric art school type because she operates her own vintage clothing store. We see her surrounded by colorful oddities: "a pair of Chinese slippers embroidered with orange fish, a suede purse with a gold clasp, a belt of crackling alligator skin, an Abyssinian scarf woven in silver, a corsage of wax flowers, a ring with a beetle set in resin." Later, of a character we're meant to dislike, we're told: "She doesn't like second-hand clothes. She told Iris this once. What if someone died in them, she said. So what if they did, Iris replied."

That character is a romantic rival of Iris's, though not the wife of the married man with whom Iris is carrying on an affair. The real purpose of the aside--to remind us that Iris is the free-spirited one and thus entitled to anything she wants--is especially plain, given that there are probably fewer than a dozen women on earth who categorically hate vintage clothing. It's a classic romantic comedy misstep to pair the object of desire with someone so devoid of merit that the object of desire becomes undesirable by association. In this case, though, there is something altogether humorless, even bitter, in the author's attempt to make our minds up for us.

The object of Iris's more or less requited desire--and this is one spoiler that it can do no harm to give out--is her stepbrother Alex. As taboos go, this one is relatively mild, but it nevertheless recalls Angelina Jolie, the most prominent real-life avatar of the "unconventional" woman, and her attention-grabbing kisses with her brother at awards ceremonies. The function of the "brother" here is more or less the same, though what with the tedium of all that rape and kidnapping, could it have hurt to liven things up with some actual incest?

Presumably, Iris is the way she is because it's in her vintage genes: Her great-aunt Esme is so singular, so magnificently willful and spirited, that not even a half-century in the loony bin can cure her of her incorrigibility. "I'm not going to get married," she informs a persistent suitor. "To anyone." Compare: "Iris doesn't usually permit men to remain in her bed overnight." This is familiar territory, a fearless condemnation of Victorian sexual repression ages after every stitch of relevance has been jerked out of it.

Esme asks Iris if she has many lovers, then wonders if the question is "impolite." This is the moment at which the book's contempt for reality can no longer be ignored or denied. Bad enough that Esme's psychological strength is shown by having her emerge unscathed after a lifetime in a mental hospital. (After all, when a character demonstrates his physical strength by stopping the Wabash Cannonball with his forehead, you're meant to infer that he's from Krypton.) At the same time, she's so dreamy or dim-witted that decades of solitary reflection haven't sketched out a connection between sexual mishap--whether refusing to marry or getting raped or having lots of lovers--and social opprobrium. This is supposed to be realism?

Esme Lennox is about the tragic fact that, once upon a time, unruly women could be locked up for damn near anything, and often were. I don't mean to belittle this matter of historical record to say that the book itself is a cartoon, full of cartoon characters and without a human being in sight. It could have gone way over the top and been a creepy, effective, and beautifully written gothic thriller, but it tries too hard to mean something.

For the record, that "very complex time scheme" consists merely of switching between the past and the present; that is, Esme's thoughts and Iris's, and it feels an awful lot like time-traveling just to poach on the turbulent emotional life of the past. It would be nice to think that it's something more complex than that, but honest readers will probably have their doubts.

Stefan Beck writes on fiction for the New York Sun, the New Criterion, and elsewhere.