The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell


Iris, a single young woman with relationship problems, discovers that she has a great aunt who has been locked away in a mental institution for 60 years. Esme Lennox is the great aunt and because the institution is shutting down Esme is handed over to the care of Iris, her one remaining, functional relative.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell is a beautifully written, haunting story of family secrets, denial, tragedy and betrayal. As the story unfolds the author carries us further and further into psyches of Esme, broken but not destroyed, and her sister Kitty, who is still hanging on, though wrecked with Alzheimer’s. Why was Esme shut away forever at age 16, never mentioned by her family again?

The Vanishing Act is a compelling read, only 243 pages and almost impossible to put down. As we are drawn deeper into the stories of the main characters the fog thickens and then finally begins to lift. Highly recommended.

Discussion questions

  1. Given the description of Esme’s actions that led up to her institutionalization, how odd do these actions seem today? What would Esme be diagnosed with today and what would be the treatment?
  2. Which character do you identify with the most? How easy is it to imagine yourself as Esme, Kitty, or Iris? What does this say about the skill of the author in creating sympathetic characters?
  3. How did the mental health profession consider women’s “hysteria” in the 30s and 40s and how has that changed?
  4. It seems awfully easy for Esme’s parents to commit her to a mental institution. How standard was this practice at the time and how has that changed?
  5. Do you think Jamie knew he was doing something wrong at the dance? How acceptable was his behavior at the time?
  6. Soon after Esme is committed, Jamie leaves for France. Was he sent by his parents? Does Mrs. Dalziel understand what happened?
  7. What was Kitty’s role in the initial institutionalization of Esme? What did she do to contribute to it? What were her motivations? What could she have done to prevent it?
  8. How would you describe Kitty’s character? How does her character develop through the story?
  9. The main characters in this book make a series of moral choices that help define their character and help us understand them. What are the moral choices that Iris makes? Kitty? Esme? Luke? Alex?
  10. What happens at the end of the story? How do you like the author’s approach in describing the scene? Writers are encouraged to “show” not “tell” to get a point across. Do you think that Maggie O’Farrell has accomplished this well?
  11. Does Kitty get what she deserves?
  12. What do you think happens to Esme next?

These two books were cited by Maggy O’Farrell as being invaluable to her in the writing of Esme:
The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1890-1980
Sanity, Madness and the Family: Families of Schizophrenics (Penguin Psychology)