JChipol's Reviews > The Hand That First Held Mine

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell
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Aug 02, 2011

After having read “After You’d Gone” very recently, I looked forward to reading another novel by Maggie O’Farrell. “The Hand That First Held Mine” is her fifth book, and the winner of The Costa Novel Award, and as a friend lent it to me, it was the next O’Farrell experience for me.

This novel tells the parallel stories of Lexie Sinclair a young woman in post-war England, and Elina and Ted, new parents struggling to get back on their feet after the traumatic birth of their first child.

The two storylines are connected but, at first, it is not clear how. Maggie O' Farrell writes beautifully about the complexities of family relationships spread across two generations and which you somehow know are going to collide eventually. (Though you are not sure how and, similar to After You’d Gone, as readers, our journey of discovery follows that of the characters.)

Alexandra (Lexie) Sinclair is an unconventional young university graduate who runs away from her controlling family home in Devon to the excitement of 1950s Soho. Here she meets and falls in love with the dashing Innes Kent, a magazine editor with a very messy personal life.

In present-day London, Elina (a Finnish artist in her early thirties) is recovering from the traumatic birth of her first child and cautiously navigating the disorienting first few weeks of motherhood. Just as she starts to recover and regain some sense of order to her life, her partner Ted starts to suffer from blackouts and flashbacks from a troubled childhood.

The lives of the main characters collide in traumatic ill fortune, which only reveals itself at the end of the novel (which I will try not to spoil for you here).

The book, although a good one, I felt was not of the same compelling mastery of “After You’d Gone”. I started to care about some of the characters (Innes was a great one, as were the two main female characters) but the novel’s impact was diluted somewhat by the weaker characterisation of others; for example Margot’s mother, Gloria, was described as pure evil and portrayed somewhat as a 2-Dimentional cartoon Cruella Deville. I also had a great deal of trouble suspending my disbelief that a married man in his 50s could not have realised that his birth mother was not who he had thought (did he not need his birth certificate to get married?)

However, even after some of the major ‘flaws’ in the plot, I still thought that it was quite a compelling book and read it relatively quickly. Maggie O’Farrell’s main characters are beautifully drawn and her images of women, with their complicated emotional thought processes, are artfully painted and her descriptions of love and relationship, as well as bringing to the surface some of our deeply rooted fears of loss, are thought provoking, beautifully observed and artfully described. The plot, though flawed, is still a good read. I would recommend this book, though if this is your first introduction to the writing of Maggie O’Farrell, I would urge you to read “After You’d Gone” as I feel it is the superior book of the two.

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Sarah You mention Ted needing his birth certificate to get married but he wasn't married to Elina.

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