O'Farrell, Maggie 1972–

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O'Farrell, Maggie 1972–


Born 1972, in Northern Ireland. Education: Attended Cambridge University.


Home—Edinburgh, Scotland.


Writer, novelist, and journalist. Worked as a waitress, maid, bicycle courier, teacher, arts administrator for a poetry society; former deputy literary editor for Independent (London, England).


Betty Trask Award and Orange Prize for Fiction, both for After You'd Gone; Somerset Maugham Award, 2005, for The Distance between Us.



After You'd Gone, Viking Press (New York, NY), 2001.

My Lover's Lover, Review (London, England), 2002, Viking Press (New York, NY), 2003.

The Distance between Us, Review (London, England), 2004.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Harcourt, (Orlando, FL), 2006.


Irish-born freelance writer and novelist Maggie O'Farrell has lived in various parts of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Her internationally acclaimed debut novel After You'd Gone, which received the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Betty Trask Award, is set in London, England.

After You'd Gone tells the story of Alice Raikes, a London resident who travels to Scotland to visit her two sisters. After disembarking from the train, Alice goes into the train station's washroom and emerges from it quite upset due to something she observed in the mirror. Alice is so distraught that she boards the next train for London, without explaining her distress to her siblings. A few hours later, as Alice attempts to cross a busy London street, she is hit by an oncoming car and is rushed to the hospital in a comatose state. Was it truly an accident, or a suicide attempt? The remainder of the novel unfolds as Alice's family gathers around her hospital bedside. During those agonizing, dark hours, many of Alice's personal memories and secrets, as well as those of her family, are revealed.

"O'Farrell performs a traditional, old-fashioned storytelling striptease … [by] artfully juxtaposing sections from the past and the present," noted New York Times Book Review contributor Maud Casey, in her appraisal of After You'd Gone. Casey also wrote: "The novel is so finely put together that it would be criminal to divulge any of its hard-won plot turns." In a London Times Literary Supplement review, Ruth Scurr commented: "This novel may serve as a poignant, unsettling reminder … of the fragility of human freedom." Other reviewers also had high praise for the novel. A Publishers Weekly contributor praised O'Farrell for "sharply observed details of everyday life and language, original and telling figures of speech, and deftly handled plot twists." Francine Fialkoff, a contributor to Library Journal, found it "hard to believe that such an assured work comes from a first novelist."

O'Farrell's second book, My Lover's Lover, is also set in London. Lily, the chief protagonist, meets her future paramour, Marcus, when he lifts her to her feet after she trips over a curb. It is a case of love at first sight, and the two attend a party together that same evening. Their affair moves rapidly as Marcus suggests that Lily move into the spare bedroom of his warehouse flat. When Lily first enters the room, she finds vestiges of the former tenant: an unusual mark on the wall, an exotic trace of perfumed jasmine, a solitary dress hanging in the closet. Marcus is unwilling or unable to speak about his former lover, Sinead, which heightens Lily's sense of curiosity. As their affair deepens, Lily becomes convinced that she sees Sinead's ghost roaming throughout the house, causing her to wonder even more about Marcus and whether or not she is safe with him.

Some reviewers were disappointed when comparing My Lover's Lover with O'Farrell's first novel, After You'd Gone. New Statesman contributor Rachel Cooke found the characters to be "motiveless pencil sketches" and the prose to be "sluggish," yet she also added that the author "is sure-footed when it comes to capturing the strangeness that comes with human intimacy." Noonie Minogue commented in a London Times Literary Supplement review that "O'Farrell explores with great panache the gothic-horror potential of relationships … [and] she exploits skillfully … the devices of the supernatural thriller."

O'Farrell's third novel, The Distance between Us, which won the Somerset Maugham Award in 2005, tells a multilayered story involving characters whose lives seem far apart but are destined to intersect. Jake Kildoune's girlfriend is seriously injured in Hong Kong, China, during Chinese New Year celebrations while Stella Gilmore sees a strange man on the Waterloo Bridge in London who frightens her to the point that she decides to leave England. "What makes these stories so engaging is that we become aware that the two main characters are star-crossed lovers long before they know it themselves," wrote a contributor to the London Telegraph. "Reading such tales is not a passive activity; it's more like cheering on a favourite horse in the Grand National. That the final few pages are agony is a large part of their pleasure."

In the novel, Jake and Stella ultimately meet in Scotland. Jake is looking for his estranged father, while Stella is running from her guilty feelings over an incident in her past involving her sister. "In The Distance between Us, the shmaltz-level has been toned down, the intensity ratcheted up," noted another contributor to the London Telegraph. "The result is a skilful, sensitive romantic novel." Elaine Showalter, in a review for the Guardian, commented: "O'Farrell is gifted and ambitious, and in many respects this book marks a stretching of her talent in its geographic reach—the Hong Kong scenes are confidently written—its range of nationalities and ages, and its command of narrative technique."

In The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, O'Farrell once again examines strained relations between siblings. "No one writes siblings like Maggie O'Farrell," wrote Sarah Crown in a review for the Guardian Online. The novel begins when Iris Lockhart finds out that she has an aunt named Esme who is being released from the Cauldstone Hospital, a psychiatric asylum where she has been sequestered for sixty years. Esme is the sister of Iris's grandmother, Kitty, who never acknowledged Esme's existence. Although Esme has been deemed fit to reenter society, her reemergence into Iris's well-to-do family brings with it a host of family secrets, including the fact that Esme was incarcerated in the hospital primarily because she was a noncomformist, not because she was insane. Her outlandish behaviors included acts such as walking in the family driveway barefoot and not wanting to get married. Ultimately, Esme was sent away for wearing a silk negligee and dancing in front of a mirror.

"O'Farrell's characteristically lyrical writing … is here sparer, more elegant," wrote Zoë Paxton in a review for the London Times. Julia Scheeres, a contributor to the New York Times Book Review, commented: "O'Farrell is a very visual writer, creating dead-on images like the ‘arched pink rafters’ of a dog's mouth and a chandelier's ‘points of light kaleidoscoping’ above a dance floor. This talent serves her well at the novel's startling and darkly rewarding finale."



Booklist, July 1, 2007, Deborah Donovan, review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, p. 31.

Bookseller, June 2, 2006, Horace Bent, "Mad for It," review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, p. 54.

Business Wire, October 23, 2007, review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.

Guardian (London, England), March 6, 2004, Elaine Showalter, "Mind the Gap," review of The Distance between Us; September 2, 2006, Jane Gardam, "Blinking into the Daylight," review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.

Independent (London, England), August, 27, 2006, Lesley McDowell, review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2007, review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.

Library Journal, January 1, 2001, Francine Fialkoff, review of After You'd Gone, p. 156; August 1, 2007, Keddy Ann Outlaw, review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, p. 72.

New Statesman, May 29, 2000, Lisa Allardice, review of After You'd Gone, p. 57; March 25, 2002, Rachel Cooke, review of My Lover's Lover, pp. 51-52; March 29, 2004, Helena Echlin, "Ill at Ease," review of The Distance between Us, p. 55; August 21, 2006, Christie Hickman, "Sibling Rivalries," review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, p. 49.

Newsweek International, August 14, 2006, Tara Pepper, review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.

New York Times Book Review, April 22, 2001, Maud Casey, "Bedside Manners: While this Debut Novel's British Heroine Lies in a Coma, Family Skeletons Rattle Their Bones," review of After You'd Gone, p. 22; November 18, 2007, Julia Scheeres, "Seeking Asylum," review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.

Observer (London, England), August 27, 2006, Caroline Boucher, "High Spirits," review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.

Publishers Weekly, January 15, 2001, review of After You'd Gone, p. 50; June 4, 2007, review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, p. 25.

Telegraph (London, England), June 3, 2004, "The Types to Leap into a Handsome Stranger's Bed," review of The Distance between Us; August 3, 2004, "Love's Background," review of The Distance between Us; September 24, 2006, Amanda Craig, "Behind the Scenes at the Asylum," review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.

Times (London, England), September 30, 2006, Zoë Paxton, "Distant Relations Grow Closer," review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.

Times Literary Supplement (London, England), March 31, 2000, Ruth Scurr, review of After You'd Gone, p. 22; March 29, 2002, Noonie Minogue, review of My Lover's Lover, p. 23.

Washington Post Book World, November 25, 2007, Ron Charles, "The Awakening," review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, p. 7.


Asian Review of Books, http://www.asianreviewofbooks.com/ (March 24, 2004), Sue Bond, review of The Distance between Us.

Guardian Online, http://www.guardian.co.uk/ (September 27, 2006), Sarah Crown, "Of Bonds and Bondage," author interview; (December 19, 2007), Sophie Kinson, author interview.

Harcourt Books Web site, http://www.harcourtbooks.com/ (July 31, 2008), "Interview with Maggie O'Farrell, author of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox."

Maggie O'Farrell Home Page, http://www.maggieofarrell.com (July 31, 2008).

Mostly Fiction, http://www.mostlyfiction.com/ (December 2, 2007), Guy Savage, review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.

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