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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

Esme is one of O'Farrell's most compelling creations.  The haunting final pages are among the finest O'Farrell has ever written.  This, the most satisfying and least mannered of her novels, marks a significant leap forward both in narrative precision and imaginative skill'
Christie Hickman, New Statesman



  1. When Iris gets the call from the psychiatric hospital, she is put in a very difficult position.  What does she stand to gain and lose from the decision she eventually makes? What would you do in her shoes? 
  1. How have years of incarceration affected Esme?  Has she retained any of the qualities we see in young Esme, before she is committed? Does she seem sane to you?
  1. The story contains several twists – what are they, and which did you find the most shocking?
  1. Considering all that Kitty has done, all that has happened to her, and the dementia she has suffered in old age, are you able to feel sympathetic towards her?
  1. The relationship between Iris and Alex is a complex one.  How does it seem to have influenced their relationships with others?  By the end of the novel, do you think they had reached any kind of resolution?
  1. How did you find the end of the book?  Can you think of any alternative endings that might have worked?
  1. What similarities, and what differences do you see between the younger Esme, and the younger Iris?
  1. This is a novel with a very complex time scheme.  What techniques does the author use to handle this?
  1. This has been described as Maggie O’Farrell’s best novel so far. Do you agree?
  1. The relationship between the sisters is very complicated. In what ways does it change as they enter adulthood?
  1. How do you think people’s attitudes towards unmarried mothers have changed since Esme was a young girl? How different would her life have been had she been able to keep her baby?
  1. What do you feel the book tells us about mental institutions? Do you think people’s attitudes have changed since the first half of the 20th Century?

Suggested further reading:

The Yellow Wallpaper
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
The Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys
The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
Hallucinating Foucault - Patricia Duncker
Flesh and Blood - Michèle Roberts
The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier
The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton
Good Behaviour – Molly Keane
Vanity Fair – William Thackeray