Maggie O’Farrell, The Hand That First Held Mine (2009)

Why did I borrow this book from the library? Sometimes it only takes a nice cover (I’m partial to blue) and a romantic calligraphy. Yes, this is a very pallid reason, one I’m not very proud of, but if it hadn’t been only for the cover, I wouldn’t have stayed around for 400 pages. If I kept reading until the end, it was of course for better reasons, even if it was not a gem.

Like many novels these days, dual narrative plots progress in parallel until they intersect, revealing their secrets. It’s a literary fashion that I find a bit easy, but it says little about the novel itself. The risk is to have people more interested in one line than the second one, or to get an uneven book.

The contemporary plot line first draw me in, because it follows a young couple in the throes of the first days of parenthood. Elina, the new mother, an artist, has had a traumatic birth experience with a nearly-fatal C-section. She and her husband Ted have yet to heal and to understand how their world has suddenly turned upside down. Those first chapters were raw and completely to the point.

The second plot line took longer for me to dip into: a young woman barely out of girlhood, Lexie Sinclair, arrives in London in the late 1950s, fall in love in the magazine editor and grows into a strong, daring woman, a mother and a great art journalist.

It was hard for me to pinpoint what was right in this book and what was a bit off. There were many times during the dreaded “sagging middle” section where I just wanted to stop, but O’Farrell’s voice stopped me every time.

We readers learn early that Lexie’s story is a tragedy and we’re left to wonder when it will strike and what are the links between her story and the contemporary plot line. But it takes quite a while to develop and take a definite direction. For most of the middle section, we’re left with fleeting moments of beauty and some strikingly right snapshots on motherhood, but the whole book lacked momentum and balance. Maybe it’s because O’Farrell wanted to put too many things into it, lots of drama, secrets and twists and turns.

5 thoughts on “Maggie O’Farrell, The Hand That First Held Mine (2009)

  1. I know what you mean bout this book, it didn’t quite grab, did it? However, I liked it enough to have her new one on order at the library. In fact, I’d go and pick it up today if we hadn’t had six inches of snow over night, more falling now and another thirty-six hours forecast. Was it really the first day of Spring this week?

  2. Pingback: Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (2020) | Smithereens

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