Friday, April 23, 2010

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell

And now I present to you, one of my many sources of guilt and self-loathing! Megan, you say, how can a perfectly good book be a source of guilt and self-loathing? Fear not, I am about to tell you. (If you happen to not care about my neuroses, you can probably just go ahead and skip this paragraph and get right to book review!) You may notice the quote in my blog header is from a Maggie O'Farrell book just as is the book that I am speaking of here. Why? Because I loved that book. It had so many quotable quotes and so many well-crafted characters and a brilliantly constructed narrative that made me smile and broke my heart into a million tiny pieces (which I actually consider to be a good thing). After You'd Gone by Maggie O''s just great. Hence the quote, hence also my glee when I was offered a review copy of Maggie O'Farrell's newest book, The Hand That First Held Mine by Bridget at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Immediately, I pledged, in my heart of hearts, that I would clean up my book blogger act and not take a million years to read the book which I considered myself so privileged to receive, and I would post my review before, on, or at the very least near the release date of the book. Believe it or not, I actually succeeded on the first count, on the second, not so much as I might have hoped. I know I probably shouldn't even bother feeling bad about it, it's not as if I had actually committed to certain date, nonetheless, I feel crummy for falling short of my not very lofty goal as I always seem to do. So, that is my sob story about what should have been and ultimately is a good thing, which I have turned into a stumbling block for myself. Ah, it's a tangled web we weave, is it not? I hope, now, if I just write this review, I will somehow magically de-funk myself after this week's dreadfulness, so off we go then.

Lexie felt lightheaded, insubstantial somehow. It was strange to look back into the gloom of her room, then out again at the scene beyond the window. For a prolonged heady moment, she and her room didn't feel real or animate. It was as if she was suspended in a bubble, peering out at Life, which was going along its way, people laughing and talking and living and dying and falling in love and working and eating and meeting and parting, while she sat there mute, motionless, watching.

The Hand That First Held Mine features two main characters. Lexie Sinclair has just left her backwater country home for faster paced London. Soon she is finding love with a dashing older married man and a career as a journalist, reporting on art and artists. We first meet Elina, an artist and another Londoner, as she wakes up to discover she has had a baby. She remembers being pregnant, but the actual giving birth part seems to be missing from her memory. At the outset, London and art seem to be the only things the two women who are generations apart from each other have in common, and O'Farrell uses the city artfully to tell the women's stories in tandem. As Lexie blossoms and falls in love and Elina blunders dazedly through her first weeks of motherhood, there is much more to be revealed about how the two women are connected across the generations.

Maggie O'Farrell has a unique writing style that just works so well. It's not terribly radical, but it's still unlike so much of what I find myself reading. The Hand That First Held Mine is like a present you might unwrap slowly, revealing bit by bit what lies at the center, the captivating characters and how they are connected despite being generations apart. Yet, oddly, even as you peel off layer after layer, you find that as the people and the plot are being exposed, you are the one being wrapped up in it all. O'Farrell captures so well the minutia of being a bewildered first time mother, of being in a new place where you've always wanted to be for the first time, of falling in love, of death, of grief, of healing. She draws out the mundane and the extraordinary in her characters' lives in bit and pieces of nonconsecutive scenes, and somehow, while you're busy being taken in by these individual crisply descriptive scenes, she is enveloping you totally in her tale so that you can hardly separate yourself from it, let alone put it down.

While it didn't pack the same punch for me as After You'd Gone, perhaps due to my never having had a child (a major focus of the story, obviously), Maggie O'Farrell definitely works the same kind of magic that I hoped for in The Hand That First Held Mine. This is an author who is not to be missed. I look forward to reading more of her work, and hope that you will, too!

A few more reviews to check out at...

My Porch
She Is Too Fond of Books


  1. I liked this book a lot, but am not sure it is her best. But as you say she is an author not to be missed, so that caveat is relative I guess.

    In my reivew I also noted that I too found the baby stuff to be a bit distancing for the reader without a baby. But after the first 100 pages I felt that focus receded a little more to the background.

  2. Wow, your review has certainly made me want to read this author's work!

  3. I've been meaning to read her book The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox for ages! And this one sounds amazing too. I promise I'll get to her before too long.

  4. I'll have to check her out. And I totally get what you mean about the review goals we set for ourselves, and feeling like a bad blogger when we don't meet them.

  5. Thomas - I agree. I really enjoyed this book, but think the experience definitely paled against my reading of After You'd Gone. I know the baby stuff would definitely do a lot more for a mother than it would for me, but Lexie's story kept me hanging on through the bulk of the more new baby oriented storyline, and then it all worked itself out after that. I do hope you'll give After You'd Gone a try, if you haven't already. It's the sort of book that I had a copy of, gave it away, and then thought about it so much that I bought another copy for my collection which is not something I do often at all!

    Kathy - Great! I hope you do and enjoy it as much as I do! =)

    Nymeth - I've got a copy of Esme Lennox, but I haven't gotten to it yet. So, that one's on deck and could possibly cement Maggie O'Farrell's place as one of my favorite authors (of which I have strikingly few). Hope you like her as much as I do - I do think you very well might! =)

    Ben - I'm glad to see that someone can relate to my bad blogger guilt. It's kind of sad, nobody can really make me feel worse about the things I don't accomplish than I can.

  6. "Ben" was me, by the way. I didn't realize I was logged in as my son until he asked me why he'd gotten an email from Leafing Through Life.

  7. I've never read O'Farrell, but now I'm going to have to get some of her work.


  8. I have never read anything by this author, but I would like to try this one. Thanks 4 your honest review; appreciated.