The Hand that First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell – 8/10

Having seen thisreviewed all over the blogosphere, I had to try it out for myself. It suffered a little for being the story of two generations, set in London in the 1960s and 1990s/2000s – just like The Last Letter From Your Lover, which I read immediately before it.

I found some parts of this really quite uncomfortable, particularly the evident trauma of birth and new motherhood on Elina and the obvious doom lurking around Lexie and Innes’ relationship. However, if anything that made this a better read – challenging the reader and not allowing the book to become a cotton candy-coloured cloud like Last Letter.

The characters were exquisitely formed – each very different and all strong and vibrant. I loved Lexie. Her fiery adherence to her principles in the face of the prospect of an “easier life” (particularly her refusal to apologise to her university – which I can only assume from the context is supposed to be Oxford/Cambridge – for using a door meant for men when exiting an exam hall and her seaworthy expletives while giving birth, despite the nurses’ admonishing). Innes and Ted are both strong male characters (for once! Everything I read seems to be filled with either philandering fools or foppish, useless Mummy’s boys) whose love for their partners is fierce and unyielding. Margot, too, is a solid creation, difficult and emotional.

My favourite character was definitely Elina, however. I was delighted to see an author tackle the bilingual experience – both the compulsion of the bilingual to speak their non-English language in certain situations, and the perception of this by their partner. And O’Farrell blesses Elina with inherent coolness (“Often, after one of those walking-about nights, she’d had that look the next day; a woman preoccupied, a woman with a satisfying secret”) which serves as a counterpoint to the exhaustion and apathy of motherhood.

For the first four-fifths of the book, this is simply two interwoven stories, when suddenly a mystery is flung into the plot, suddenly livening up the ending (by which point there’s not much space for character development any more) – which really impressed me.

I will definitely be recommending this, although I will have to advise readers to stick with it and get used to the back-and-forth chapters, which I found quite off-putting at first. Very much worth the effort.

Reviews from other blogs: Savidge Reads, dovegreyreader, Other Stories, Cornflower Books, Fleur Fisher

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4 thoughts on “The Hand that First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell – 8/10

  1. David73277 16 November 2010 at 8:20 pm Reply

    I had similar feelings about this book. Personally I thought it had a mystery element much earlier than you did, since I was curious about how the past and present plot lines were linked from quite early on. Without giving anything away, the connection turned out not quite as I was expecting.
    I’m not a parent myself, nor am I a woman (as my name suggests), but it seems to me that O’Farrell captures brilliantly just how transformational having a baby must be for a first time parent, and particularly for the mother.

  2. Yvann 19 November 2010 at 11:04 pm Reply

    Yay first comment! Thank you for stopping by my humble reading log.
    I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I wasn’t really that bothered about how the plot lines linked up, I knew they would eventually – but I too was surprised by the link, it was almost one step too remote for me!
    I thought O’Farrell did a reasonable job with the description of the changes a father goes through? (although I’m not a male parent!)

  3. […] first novel (The Last Letter From Your Lover) which was reasonable but suffered by comparison with The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell, on a similar theme, which I read immediately […]

  4. […] I look back on books and think why did I rate it so highly (e.g. The Love Verb) or so low (e.g. The Hand That First Held Mine) – they seem so different after 6 […]

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