Iris Lockhart is a young and independent woman who has both feet firmly on the ground. Nothing points to a dark family secret that could affect Iris' life until a letter arrives asking her to come and get Esme Lennox, Iris' great-aunt, from a mental hospital because the institution is going to close. But Iris doesn't know about a great-aunt who lived like a prisoner, locked up in a psychiatric ward, for over sixty years. The alleged mistake soon turns out to be a family tragedy that began in Edinburgh in the 1930s, when Esme and her sister Kitty, Iris' grandmother, were still girls in a marriageable age.
*MINOR SPOILER ALERT*
Esme was a wild, unsociable girl with lacking manners, perturbing Kitty's chances to find a husband. Is it really possible that under those circumstances the family got rid of Esme institutionalizing her? Or were there some more disturbing reasons for this decision?
I enjoyed reading Esme's story and getting to know what really happened to her from her early childhood living in India with her parents and sister until her being locked up back in Scotland. O'Farrell cleverly divided the narrating of the story between her characters. The reader gets an insight in Iris' private life as well as Esme's routine in the ward and as Kitty is supposed to be an old woman with Alzheimer's disease now, we get snippets of her recollections in no chronological order always accompanied by a tone of guilt.
It is really amazing how much this little book has to offer. Apart from a family mystery and betrayal, the author fit in a (I'll quote Linda) "holy cow ending". First I wasn't sure I really got what happened but after rereading the ending I made up my mind. I think this book would really work well in a book club because I feel the urge to discuss it myself. It seems that it was quite common for family's to edit out the life of certain family members if they didn't fit in anymore, just like in Jane Eyre. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is like a Victorian novel but set in present.