The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell

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 Winner of 2010 Costa Book Award for Fiction

Five words from the blurb: Soho, birth, motherhood, women, connected.

The Hand That First Held Mine has a dual narrative which follows two women who are separated by 50 years in time, but dealing with many of the same issues. The first thread follows Lexie, a 21-year-old girl, who leaves her 1950s Devon home to start a new life in London. She begins a relationship with a married man and struggles to deal with the problems this causes.

The second thread follows Elina, a Finnish woman who has just given birth to her first baby. The traumatic emergency caesarean affected her and her partner, Ted, deeply. As both struggle to come to terms with the near-death experience they also have to learn to look after their demanding new baby. The writing was vivid and packed with emotion – perfectly describing the turmoil that a new baby brings to a household.

Ted registers again how pale she is, how dark and deep are the circles around her eyes, how thin her limbs look. He is possessed with an urge to apologise – for what he isn’t sure. He scans his mind for something to say, something light and perhaps witty, something to take them out of themselves, to remind them that life is not all like this. But he can’t think of anything and now the baby is rearing back, crying, fidgeting, fists flailing, and Elina is having to open her eyes, sit up again, lift him to her shoulder, rub his back, untangle his hands from her hair and Ted cannot bear it.

I connected with Elina’s thread much more than Lexie’s. I think this is a combination of the fact that I have young children and so can relate to the feelings of a new mother, but also because I have little sympathy for someone who has an affair with a married man. Lexie’s thread felt like a well written piece of chick-lit whilst Elina’s thread had a bit more depth than that.

Both threads come together towards the end of the book, but rather than being impressed by the connection it all felt a bit contrived to me.

The book was easy to read and gripping in places, but I wished that the plot had been a bit more complex or thought-provoking. This book reminded me of  Peripheral Vision, but I felt that The Hand That First Held Mine didn’t have the same complexity or depth. I’m still thinking about the issues of motherhood raised in Peripheral Vision, whilst The Hand That First Held Mine offered no new perspective on the subject.

Overall, this was an entertaining diversion, but I don’t expect to remember much about it in a few months time.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

Every word is perfectly chosen, every sentence is perfectly constructed. Fleur Fisher in her World

…it didn’t pack the same punch for me as After You’d Gone… Leafing Through Life

It’s a vivid story of motherhood that honors the whole woman. The Literate Housewife


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30 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review Jackie. I enjoyed …Esme Lennox but sounds like this might not live up to that experience. I’m a bit dubious about dual narratives – they rarely work for me as it can be frustrating to flip between two stories especially if like you say you don’t really like one of the characters as much.

    1. Jackie says:

      Novel Insights, I enjoyed Esme Lennox more than this one, but I wasn’t bowled over by either.

      I don’t normally mind dual narratives – not sure why this one didn’t quite work for me. All I can do is suggest you give it a go. You’ll probably get on with it better than I did.

      1. Ah, perhaps that could be right. It’s logical given that I enjoyed EL, although in hindsight it isn’t that vivid in my memory. Wierd!

  2. I recently picked this one up at a book swap site. Sorry it was not more compelling.

    1. Jackie says:

      Diane, Congratulations on picking it up from a swap site – I never have luck getting books as new as this one! I hope you enjoy it more than I did.

  3. Laura says:

    I was first drawn to this book by its cover (I know, I know) and the five words from the blurb… I’m sorry you were a bit disappointed by it all. I think I’d still like to give it a try though – sometimes you need a story with a little less depth to it. Thanks for the review!

    1. Jackie says:

      Laura, It is fast paced and easy to read. I liked it enough to keep reading to the end – in fact I was going to give it 4 stars until I sat down to write the review and realised how many issues I had with it. :-( I’m probably just in a picky mood today!

  4. Jenny says:

    I wasn’t so bothered by Lexie’s affair with the married man, but I thought it was really unfair that the daughter got demonized so much throughout the book. If anyone was the injured party, it was the daughter, for heaven’s sake. Not nice to make her out to be the manipulative villain all the time. :(

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, Good point. I was irritated by everything that happened to Lexie’s character. Perhaps it was her youthful stupidity that annoyed me? I don’t know, but something didn’t connect with me :-(

  5. Steph says:

    Oh, sad you didn’t really connect with this novel as this was the first Maggie O’Farrell that I read and I really responded to it. I admit, I actually don’t remember much about Elina’s storyline at this point and remember much more about Lexie’s! :) I was really impressed by O’Farrell’s writing above all, and while I didn’t think it was a perfect book, I found it really satisfying. I wish I hadn’t given my galley copy to a friend because I’d love to read it again!

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, I agree that her writing is fantastic and if you enjoyed this then I’m sure you’ll like her other books even more.

      I think it is interesting that you connected with Lexie more – perhaps because you haven’t had children yet? I think this would make a great book club choice because there is so much to talk about, but I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t love it as much as everyone else seems to.

  6. Lyndsey says:

    A shame you didn’t enjoy it – I really liked it, though I can see why you felt the way the plots coming together felt a bit contrived. Am interested in your recommendation for Peripheral Vision – will definitely give that a try!

    1. Jackie says:

      Lyndsey, Great news! I hope that you enjoy Peripheral Vision as much as I did :-)

  7. Jessica says:

    I have this on my shelf along with the vanishing act of Esme but I haven’t gotten around to either of them yet. One day I’ll ive them ago.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jessica,Despite the fact I haven’t fallen in love with this book, I enjoyed the writing enough to ensure I read all of her books in the future. I look forward to seeing what you make of them.

  8. Karen says:

    I’m sorry to hear that this one didn’t quite hit the mark for you Jackie. It was one of my top reads from last year – I just found the whole storyline authentic and haunting. Although O’Farrell’s writing for me is just perfection so I might not really have been paying much attention to the plot!!

    1. Jackie says:

      Karen, I agree – very realistic and I can’t fault the writing. I’m afraid I’m just a fussy person who needs a bit of plot to accompany all that emotion. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much though.

  9. Violet says:

    I’ve seen very favourable reviews of this and nearly bought it, but your review confirms that it’s probably not my sort of book. I have Esme on the shelf, but have never gotten around to reading it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Violet, Give Esme a try and see what you think – I’m sure you’ll be able to tell quite quickly whether or not she is for you :-)

  10. annie says:

    This was my first O’Farrell and I have to say that I loved it, although I connected more with Lexie, perhaps because I remember the time in which she lived and because I’m not a mother. I certainly intend to read her other books.

    1. Jackie says:

      Annie, You make a good point – perhaps I’m too young to appreciate the reminiscing power of this book? If you liked this then I’m sure you’ll enjoy her other books. Have fun delving into her back catalogue :-)

  11. Tracey says:

    I’m planning to read this one soon Jackie – thanks for a really good review. I’m leaning towards not being so fond of the dual narrative so will be interesting to see how this one goes.

    By the way, can’t wait to see how you find This Blinding Absence of Light..

    1. Jackie says:

      Tracey, I look forward to seeing what you make of the book.

      I have heard wonderful things about Blinding Absence of Light, so I hope it is as good as I think it will be. :-)

  12. Erin says:

    I’ve not read anything by Maggie O’Farrell, but she’s been on my radar for a while. It sounds like maybe this isn’t the book to start with.

    1. Jackie says:

      Erin, I don’t know. Most people seem to love all her books so I think she is just not quite to my taste. I don’t think it matters where you start. I hope you enjoy your first O’Farrell experience.

  13. Megan says:

    Hey, thanks for the link! I really, really loved After You’d Gone (have you read it?), and I think this book and that were both similar in their structure, but After You’d Gone wins by a long shot in my book. In After You’d Gone, I think it seemed like the conclusion was a bit more organic than in The Hand That First Held Mine, even though both seemed pretty geared for the emotional reaction which O’Farrell definitely got out of me with After You’d Gone, but not so much with this book. I did *like* this book, but I think it was the whole young children angle that made it a little harder for me to get into. I related a bit to young Lexie, but the rest was a bit more foreign to me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Megan, No, I haven’t read After You’d Gone yet. I have a copy on the shelf and will get to it at some point. It is good to know that you think it is a much better book – I do like books that encourage an emotional reaction and I didn’t get one from THTFHM. Fingers crossed After You’d Gone will be different.

  14. I’m a little saddened to hear you were disappointed with this one after all the positive reviews and “Best of” lists it appeared on. While I love stories set in different times, I don’t have much interest in stories of motherhood. I’m sure that will change if and when I have children, but for now, I much prefer stories of marriage and relationships. I do still hope to read this one, but I’m a little more trepidatious.

  15. LindyLouMac says:

    Thanks for the review, this is definitely one I would still like to read if it comes my way.

  16. Tortoisebook says:

    Interesting review – we seem to have opposite reactions to this one, I preferred the Lexie story (chick-lit, pah!) to Elina’s. I’ve got some more O’Farrells on my bookshelf so I’m looking forward to reading them one day.

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