Review – The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

The Hand That First Held Mine

Oh no, another favourite author releasing a new title – cue the sickening  feelings of anxiety when I settle into the story , wondering if it will meet my expectations but any fears are quickly assuaged as I become immersed in this, Maggie O’ Farrell’s fifth novel.  I devoured it in a few sittings – one of those books you are eager to embrace but loath to leave.

Like it’s predecessor, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, there is a cleverly woven dual narrative, one set in the 1950s/1960s in Bohemian London and the contemporary story, again set in London.  In the 50s setting, Lexie leaves the bucolic setting of her family home in Devon at the tender age of 21, intent on finding a new life in London.  She meets and is seduced by Innes Kent, a seemingly most unsuitable partner and they fall for each other, working together on a magazine in Soho.  From an, at times, irritating ingenue Lexie develops into a strong, independent woman working her way up in the male dominated sector of journalism.  It’s fair to say that life does not treat her that kindly – she becomes a single mother without any family support, her family disowns her when she takes up with Innes. 

The modern day story focuses on Elina, a Finnish painter who lives with her partner, Ted.  When we first encounter Elina she seems to be suffering some sort of post-traumatic disorder following a particuarly harrowing emergency caesarean birth and to begin with, motherhood does not sit very well with her especially as she seems to have blotted out all memories of giving birth.  Later, Ted is the one to suffer flashbacks of suppressed memories and you start to wonder if this couple can withstand the immediate changes brought to the dynamic of their relationship by the arrival of the Baby.  I must say, it’s refreshing to see a novelist showing how new parenthood can cause a seismic shift in a partnership – it doesn’t matter what class you are, how old you are, being a parent makes you feel more vulnerable.

There is a link between these two stories, a connection which gradually reveals itself as the novel progresses with a series of teasing hints and clues sprinkled in the narrative.  However, I feel that the bridge between the two stories is less important than the common themes which colour both – there is love, romantic love, platonic love, maternal love, paternal love, infatuation, passion, contentment in another’s company.  There is loss and grief and how we deal with such facts of life.  There is the recurrent motif of family secrets and lies which can cloud future generations.  Maggie O’ Farrell is an expert at portraying well rounded, feisty female characters but here she also succeeds in capturing a very strong sense of male sensibilities via Ted  and also Innes.   It certainly serves to create a more balanced storyline to have both male and female perspectives, especially how the different male characters react to fatherhood.

It’s clear that Maggie O’ Farrell has done her research – I could sense the sounds, sights and smells of 50s Soho and in the modern day setting, I could empathise with the trauma of an emergency caesarean and the slightly surreal atmosphere which accompanies the arrival of your first child.  She has a lightness of touch which tempers the research and lets the narrative flow.  Yes, it’s a novel which deals with a lot of sadness and grief but there is a feeling of optimism, of looking ahead also which lifts it from the doldrums. 

So, not that I’m impatient but….when will we get the next novel?  I don’t think I can wait another four years….

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  1. Jenny Wilson says:

    another book i’ve heard so many good reviews. It on my wishlist!

  2. admin says:

    Have you read any others by her, Jenny? I’ve really enjoyed all of them apart from perhaps My Lover’s Lover.

  3. Jenny says:

    I’m out of my regular hometown right now and have access to a very fancy university library, so I’m trying to only read books that I know I won’t be able to get when I return home. But your review is testing my resolve! I love Maggie O’Farrell…

  4. Jenny Wilson says:

    No not yet!

  5. Iris says:

    I’m ashamed to say that I have never read anything by O’Farrell. I guess I should try to remedy the situation soon?

  6. admin says:

    I won’t set the Book Police on you if you don’t read her books!! ;-) So many books out there….so little time… :-)

  7. Bina says:

    Another gushing review on one of Maggie O´Farrell´s books, I have to try her soon! I´ve been thinking of reading with The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, would you say that it´s a good place to start? :)

  8. admin says:

    Bina, thanks for dropping by! I think Esme would be a good starting point and if you don’t like it then you’ll know you won’t like the rest and if you do like it then cue heaving bookshelves! :-)

  9. kimbofo says:

    I’ve got this in my TBR and will have to read it pronto, especially as it features one of my favourite subjects in literature — journalism. Thanks for your review.

  10. admin says:

    Thank you for commenting, Kim. The passages describing work on the magazine with its office in Soho in the 50s are particularly atmospheric – you can almost smell the print!

  11. Jamie says:

    I guess I’m going to have to read this! I keep hearing such good review!!

    -Jamie at The Broke and the Bookish

  12. admin says:

    You make it sound like a chore, Jamie….it won’t be, I promise! Thanks for dropping by. :-)

  13. Nymeth says:

    Oooh, Bohemian London. A very tempting setting after my recent reading of Virginia Nicholson’s Among the Bohemians. It sounds like it’s hard to go wrong with O’Farrell. I have to read her before too long!

  14. admin says:

    I think you’ll enjoy the older story, Nymeth. Usually the contemporary story fails to engage me in these dual time frame novels but it seemed to work for me here. Hope you get to enjoy O’ Farrelll some time (I won’t say soon – there are too many books to distract you)

  15. Carol says:

    I have The Hand… on my reserve list from the library.
    I am eagerly awaiting this one as I love Maggie O’Farell’s books.

    My favourites being The Distance between them and of course The Vanishing Act of Esme

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