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The Hand That First Held Mine Hardcover – April 12, 2010

4.1 out of 5 stars 167 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, April 2010: Maggie O'Farrell has a singular knack for sensing the magnetic fields that push and pull people in love, and in The Hand That First Held Mine, she summons those invisible forces to tell two stories. The first is the spirited journey of Lexie Sinclair, a bright, tempestuous woman who finds her way from rural Devon to the center of postwar London's burgeoning art scene. Her force of personality makes her a natural critic (she's a wonderful tour guide to Soho's Bohemian circles), and she soon falls deeply in love. Fast forward fifty years and you'll meet Ted and Elina: a contemporary London couple who've just had their first child, both afflicted with a crisis of memory--Elina can recall only bits and pieces of her life before the baby, while Ted fights off memories he can't even recognize. O'Farrell alternates these plots artfully, always keeping the incorrigible Lexie in forward motion, while letting Ted and Elina wade further back in time. Inevitably, the two stories collide, and the result is a remarkably taut and unsentimental whole that embraces the unpredictable, both in love and in life. --Anne Bartholomew

A Q&A with Maggie O'Farrell

Q: What made you want to write this book?

A: A few years ago, I attended an exhibition of John Deakin's photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Many of them were portraits of people in Soho in the 1950s: artists, writers, actors, musicians. Soho is an area of London that is famous for many things, but I hadn't known that, for a short time after the Second World War, it had been the center of an artistic movement. The bohemian, underground world that thrived there so briefly and was captured so vividly by Deakin fascinated me. I began to conceive a story about a girl, Lexie, who arrives there from a very conventional home and makes a life for herself as a journalist.

Q: There are two stories in the novel, aren't there?

A: The other story is set in the present and is about Elina, a young Finnish painter who has just had her first child. With Elina, I was interested in writing about new motherhood, those very first few weeks with a newborn--the shock and the rawness and the emotion and the exhaustion of it. It's something that's been done a great deal in nonfiction, but I haven't read much about it in fiction. Much of the novel is concerned with people whose lives change in an instant; a decision or a chance meeting or a journey occurs and suddenly your life veers off on a new course. Having your first child is one of those times. As soon as the newborn takes its first breath, life as you've known it is gone and a new existence begins.

Q: Why did you decide to divide the novel into two time frames?

A: I liked the idea of these two women living in the same city, fifty years apart. Lexie and Elina have no inkling of each other's existence, but they hear each other's echoes through time. And, as it turns out, they are linked in other ways--in ways neither of them could ever have expected.

Q: As well as motherhood and the unexpectedness of life, there's a great deal about love in the book as well, isn’t there?

A: Love in many forms powers the book: familial, platonic, and also romantic. Lexie has many different men in her life. There's Felix, the feckless yet famous TV news reporter, and Robert, the rather more serious biographer. But the great love of her life is Innes Kent, the man she follows to London, who takes her under his wing and gives her her first job as a journalist.

Elina's relationship with her boyfriend Ted is challenged by the arrival of their baby. Ted begins to recall things from his own infancy, and these things don’t seem to fit. I was interested in the way having children makes you remember and reassess your own childhood, in micro-detail: things I'd never thought about or remembered before would suddenly rear their head. And this made me wonder what it would be like if the memories that resurfaced were of places and people you didn't recognize, if your own life suddenly seemed strange to you.

Q: Did you have to do a lot of research for the book?

A: The 1950s and 1960s are not that distant in time, and the sixties in particular are very well documented in art, film, photography, and literature. I read history books but also made sure to submerge myself in novels of the period. You get wonderful insights into the way people spoke then; it was quite different from the way English is spoken in London now. The cadences and vocabulary have completely changed. So I read Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Forster. Novels also give you tiny details you didn't even know you needed--how a telephone worked in a house of bed-sitters, for example. Where one bought peacock-blue stockings in 1957.

You have to be careful with research, though. There's a terrible temptation, once you've done all this collecting of interesting details, to shoehorn in as much of it as you can. You can sometimes find yourself writing a sentence along the lines of "She picked up the telephone, which was made of Bakelite, a substance first developed in 1907 by a Belgian chemist..." At which point you have to stop and try to forget everything you know about early plastic manufacture. Most research you have to throw out. But you still need to do it, to give yourself confidence and scaffolding.

Q: London as a city has a strong presence in the book. Was this deliberate?

A: I felt all the way through as if London were the third main character in the novel, along with Lexie and Elina. Most of the novel was written while I was living away from London, so I suppose I was re-creating a city with which I have had a very long relationship (a rather off-and-on one, to be honest).

Q: To what degree does your own life play into your fiction?

A: I don't write autobiographically. Fiction for me is an escape, an alternative existence, so I wouldn't want to re-create my life on the page. There are elements of my life that filter into my books, but they are usually recast and redrawn and reimagined to such a degree as to be unrecognizable to me or anyone else. Lexie and Elina both arrive in London as adults, as I did, and Lexie becomes a journalist, as I did. The scenes about motherhood I couldn't, of course, have written without having been a mother myself. The rest is made up.

Recommended Reading from Maggie O'Farrell

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark: My favorite Spark, I think. A portrait of a women's boarding house in postwar London, including the spinsters, the young dormitory girls, the elocution teacher, the mercenary but beautiful Selina and the Schiaparelli dress they all take turns to wear.
A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch: A devastating account of love and marriage in 1950s London. Murdoch handles her six characters with poise as their lives become ever more entangled.
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns: The book I have given most as a present. It's the mesmerizingly lively story of a young artist who marries against the wishes of her family and her ensuing struggle with poverty, motherhood and her awful, self-centered husband. I make it sound gloomy but it's anything but… 
Dear George and Other Stories by Helen Simpson: I particularly love the story "Heavy Weather" in this collection, which documents a couple on holiday with a toddler and a baby. Nobody but Simpson can write with such heartbreaking accuracy about life with small children.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham: I read and re-read this book while writing The Hand that First Held Mine. It is, quite simply, perfect. How did he do it?
Any Human Heart by William Boyd: The whole of the 20th century is laid out in the diaries of Logan Mountstuart. A spectacular, astonishing novel.

(Photo © Ben Gold)

From Publishers Weekly

O'Farrell (TheVanishing Act of Esme Lennox) interweaves two seemingly unconnected stories—that of Lexie Sinclair, living in post-WWII London, and Elina Vilkuna, a denizen of present-day London. Lexie is a rebellious 21-year-old, and when she meets handsome and sophisticated Innes Kent, she realizes he's the one who can help her find the adventure and excitement she craves. Their affair coincides with her moving up in the ranks at the magazine he edits, but a tragedy changes Lexie's life forever. Fifty-odd years later, Elina, a painter, faces her own struggles: she recently had a son with her boyfriend, Ted, and, after a rough child-birth, Ted and Elina struggle to recalibrate their relationship as it evolves into parenthood. While O'Farrell brings Lexie to life, she does not achieve the same with Elina and Ted, who come across as just another bland couple facing the challenges of having a child. The two plots are, naturally, connected, but the contemporary plot doesn't really get moving until too late in the book. If the contemporary storyline was developed half as well as the historical plot, this would be a wonderful book. As it is, it feels lighter than it should. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (April 12, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547330790
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547330792
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (167 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #459,590 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Mr. August VINE VOICE on March 17, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I have not read Maggie O'Farrell's work before, but I certainly will retrieve her prior novels with the hope of discovering similar strong characterizations and taut plots.

This story develops when Alexandra Sinclair, renamed Lexie by the love of her life, Innes Kent, leaves her traditional family and moves to London. The setting is Bohemian post war London in the 1950's when most women lived with their families or boarding houses for women only. Lexie is unconventional; she is ahead of her time, she is independent, passionate and wants to carve a niche for herself. With the help and high powered love of Innes, she becomes knowledgeable about art and turns herself into a credible reporter. She works hard in this Soho art scene and is rewarded with like-minded friends. Tragedy befalls her and eventually she ends up an "unwed" mother out of choice. Throughout her travails, she holds onto her passion for Innes and confidence in herself as a mother and journalist.

Decades later, another woman in London, has a near death experience giving birth to her son, Jonah. Elina is also not married but is a loyal, bright companion to Ted, the father of her child. She is also an artist and has a solid understanding of contemporary art and its value. Ted, who is nearly paralyzed by nearly losing Elina during labor, begins to recover lost memories. These memories traumatize him and he experiences deep loss.

O'Farrell draws a brilliant connection between Lexie, Innes, Elina and Ted. There are other significant characters (Margot and Felix for example) weaved into the plot with strong purpose. Both Elina and Lexie are transformed by motherhood and their individual expression of motherhood is the best I have read. The author links the stories at the end, not too surprising, but there are some twists which convinced me that some birthrights deserve to be carried on.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I was really looking forward to this read. Reviewed in the New York Times, Amazon Book of the Month. And what a terrific title and great cover!

This parallel story, one of a woman in 1950s London and another woman in present-day London, sounded intriguing. And it starts off strongly with the character of Lexie, a headstrong country girl who moves to London on a whim. The author creates a terrific character in Lexie, and in the first man she attaches herself to, Innes Kent.

But Elina's story starts so slowly and oddly that I quickly lost interest. A woman who doesn't remember having a baby? Post-partum depression, sure, but isn't this a wee bit over the top?

But to give it a good try, I decided just to follow Lexie's story first and then come back to Elina. Even reading Lexie's story straight through, skipping every other chapter, I started to lose interest in her. The men in her life begin to mount -- Innes, Felix, Robert -- until I lost track. No one seems to stay around very long. I didn't really care to, either.

Returning to Elina, I did the chapter-skipping thing again until I got to the point that Elina comes around but her boyfriend Ted starts slipping away from reality. This is pretty much where I gave up. It was all too hazy for me.

Everything about the novel worked against my involvement in it. The alternating stories drove me nuts. I'm a buy-and-hold reader and want to stick with a character. The author also plays puppet master -- "Here is Lexie, standing on a pavement in Marble Arch" -- a literary device that distracted me. And O'Farrell foreshadows to the point of making my own reading seem unnecessary: "Life as she will know it is about to begin..." "Innes' flat today is no longer a flat... he is gone. And so is Lexie.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"The Hand that First Held Mine". It feels as if a hand has taken yours as you start reading. As if you are being gently led into a new world. You are directed where to look, introduced to people as they enter the story. Given help as you adjust to this new place...are birthed into this book.

I liked this narrative tool - like the scene direction that the reader is given by the author. It gives a certain texture to the words that made the actions even more visual, a movie that unfolds before us...or rewinds in front of our eyes.

"But this is anticipating. The film needs to be rewound a little. Watch. Innes sucks in a nimbus of smoke, lifts a cigarette stub from the ashtray, he appears to envelop Lexie in a shirt and push her across the room, the pillows jump onto the bed, Lexie zooms backwards towards the window."

I was a bit unsure where this book was going...who the focus of the book would be. What the focus would be. Was this a story about the cataclysmic change that happens as one becomes a mother? Was this a story about madness? Were we being brought slowly behind the scenes of a mystery? Or was it a story about parents and children and that special kind of love?

"Elina and the baby walk together to the window. They don't take their eyes off each other. He blinks a little in the bright light but stared up at her, as if the sight of her to him is like water to a plant. Elina leans against the windows to the garden. She raises the baby so that his forehead touches her cheek, as if anointing him or greeting him, as if thy are starting all the way back at the beginning."

I was enjoying the story, I was interested in the characters...but I wasn't engrossed in the book. And then...I put it down for a week.
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