From the best-selling author of The Vanishing of Esme Lennox comes a spellbinding novel that shows there are no accidents, in life and in love.
Frustrated with her parents' genteel country life, Lexie Sinclair plans her escape to London. There, she takes up with Innes Kent, a magazine editor who introduces her to the thrilling, underground world of bohemian, postwar Soho. She learns to be a reporter, comes to know art and artists, and embraces her freedom fully. So when she finds herself pregnant, she doesn't hesitate to have the baby on her own. Later, in present-day London, a young painter named Elina dizzily navigates the first weeks of motherhood and finds she can't remember giving birth, while her boyfriend Ted is flooded with memories and images he cannot place. As their stories unfold—moving in time and changing voice chapter by chapter—a connection between the three of them takes shape that drives the novel towards a tremendous revelation. Praised by The Washington Post as a “breathtaking, heart-breaking creation,” The Hand That First Held Mine is a gorgeous and tenderly wrought story about the ways in which love and beauty bind us together.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
MAGGIE O'FARRELL is the author of four previous novels, including the acclaimed The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which was a B&NRecommends Pick, and After You’d Gone. Born in Northern Ireland in 1972, O'Farrell grew up in Wales and Scotland. She has two children.
Read an Excerpt
Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves. A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea, and it is almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen.
The garden is empty, the patio deserted, save for some pots with geraniums and delphiniums shuddering in the wind. A bench stands on the lawn, two chairs facing politely away from it. A bicycle is propped up against the house but its pedals are stationary, the oiled chain motionless. A baby has been put out to sleep in a pram and it lies inside its stiff cocoon of blankets, eyes obligingly shut tight. A seagull hangs suspended in the sky above and even that is silent, beak closed, wings outstretched to catch the high thermal draughts.
The house is set apart from the rest of the village, behind dense hedge, on the crest of a cliff. This is the border between Devon and Cornwall, where the two counties crouch, eyeing each other. It is a much-disputed piece of land. It would not do to look too long at the soil here, soaked as it will be with the blood of Celts, Anglo- Saxons, Romans, filled out with the rubble of their bones.
However, this happens in a time of relative peace for Britain: late summer in the mid-1950s. A gravelled path curves towards the front door of the house. On the washing-line, petticoats and vests, socks and stays, nappies and handkerchiefs snap and writhe in the breeze. A radio can be heard from somewhere, one of the neighbouring houses perhaps, and the muffled thwack of an axe falling on wood.
The garden waits. The trees wait. The seagull, balancing in the sky above the washing, waits. And then, just as if this is a stage set and there is an audience, watching from a hushed dark, there are voices. Noises off. Somebody screams, another person shouts, something heavy hits the floor. The back door of the house is wrenched open. 'I can't bear it! I tell you, I can't!' the someone shrieks. The back door is slammed, resoundingly, and a person appears.
She is twenty-one, soon to be twenty-two. She is wearing a blue cotton dress with red buttons. A yellow scarf holds back her hair. She is marching across the patio and she is holding a book. In her bare feet, she stamps down the steps and across the lawn. She doesn't notice the seagull, which has turned in the air to look down on her, she doesn't notice the trees, which are tossing their branches to herald her arrival, she doesn't even notice the baby as she sweeps past the pram, heading for a tree stump at the bottom of the garden.
She sits herself down on this tree stump and, attempting to ignore the rage fanning through her veins, she balances the book on her lap and begins to read. Death be not proud, the words begin, though some have called thee mighty and Dreadful.
She bends with tense concentration over the page, sighing and flexing her shoulders. Then, without warning, she lets out a sudden growl and flings the book away from her. It hits the grass with a subdued thud, its pages fluttering closed. There it lies, surrounded by grass.
She gets to her feet. She doesn't do it as anybody else would, gradually moving from sitting to standing. She leaps, she starts, she bounds, she seems to stamp on the soil as she rises as if, like Rumpelstiltskin, she would crack it open.
Standing, she is at once confronted by the sight of a farmer in the lane, driving a flock of sheep, a switch in one hand, a dog darting about him. These sheep encapsulate what she hates about her home: their shredded, filthy backsides, their numb-faced stupidity, their witless bleating. She would like to drive them all into a threshing machine, over the cliff, anything, just to rid herself of the sight.
She turns away from the sheep, away from the house. She keeps only the sea in her sights. She has had a creeping fear of late that what she wants most - for her life to begin, to take on some meaning, to turn from blurred monochrome into glorious technicolour - may pass her by. That she might not recognise it if it comes her way, might fail to grasp for it.
She is closing her eyes to the sea, to the presence of the castaside book, when there is the sound of feet thudding through grass and a voice, saying, 'Sandra?'
She snaps upright as if she has received an electric shock. 'Alexandra!' she corrects. This is her name, given to her at birth, but her mother later decided she didn't like it and shortened it to its final syllables.
'Alexandra,' the child repeats obediently. 'Mother says, “What are you doing and will you come in and-”'
'Away!' Alexandra screams. 'Go away!' And she returns crossly to her stump, to the book, to her analysis of Death and its needless pride.
At the exact same moment, half a mile away, Innes Kent - aged thirty-four, art dealer, journalist, critic, self-confessed hedonist - is kneeling on the dirt to examine the underside of his car. He has no idea what he is looking for but feels that he ought to look anyway. He is ever the optimist. The car is a silver and ice-blue MG; Innes loves it more than almost anything else in the world and it has just ground to a standstill at the side of this country lane. He straightens up. And he does what he does in most situations that frustrate him: he lights a cigarette. He gives the wheel an experimental kick, then regrets it.
Innes has been in St Ives, visiting the studio of an artist whose work he'd been hoping to buy. He had found the artist rather drunk and the work far from completion. The whole excursion has been a raging disaster. And now this. He grinds his cigarette underfoot, then sets off down the lane. He can see a cluster of houses ahead, the curved wall of a harbour reaching out into the sea. Someone will know the whereabouts of a garage, if they have garages in this god - forsaken place.
Alexandra does not - cannot - know the proximity of Innes Kent. She doesn't know that he is coming, getting ever closer with every passing second, walking in his hand-made shoes along the roads that separate them, the distance between them shrinking with every wellshod step. Life as she will know it is about to begin but she is absorbed, finally, in her reading, in a long-dead man's struggle with mortality.
As Innes Kent turns into her road, Alexandra raises her head. She places the book on the ground again, this time more gently, and stretches, her arms held high. She twirls a strand of hair between finger and thumb, hooks a daisy between her toes and plucks it - she has always had gymnastic joints; it is something of which she is rather proud. She does this again and again until all eight gaps between her toes hold the frank yellow eye of a daisy.
Innes comes to a halt beside a gap in a thick hedge. He peers through. A pretty sort of country house with bushes, grass, flowers, that kind of thing - a garden, he supposes. Then he sees, close by, seated under a tree, a woman. Innes's interest never fails to be piqued by the proximity of a woman.
This specimen is without shoes, hair held off her neck in a yellow scarf. He raises himself on tiptoe to see better. The most exquisite column of a neck, he decides. If he were pressed to write a description of it, he would be forced to employ the word 'sculptural' and possibly even 'alabaster', which are not terms he would bandy about lightly. Innes's background is in art. Or perhaps 'foreground' would be a more accurate term. Art is not a background for Innes. It is what he breathes, what makes life continue; he looks and he doesn't see a tree, a car, a street, he sees a potential still-life, he sees an interplay of light and shade and colour, he sees a deliberate arrangement of chosen objects.
And what he sees when he looks at Alexandra in her yellow scarf and blue dress is a scene from a fresco. Innes believes he is beholding a perfect rural madonna, in profile, in a marvellously - he thinks - tight-fitting blue frock, with her baby slumbering a few feet away. He shuts one eye and regards the scene first with one eye, then the other. Really, it's a beautiful composition, with the tree overhead counterpointed by the flat stretch of grass and the uprightness of the woman and her neck. He would like to see it painted by one of the Italian masters, by Piero della Francesca or Andrea del Sarto perhaps. She can even pick flowers with her toes! What a creature!
Innes is smiling to himself, trying it out again with both eyes, when the scene is shattered by the madonna saying in a clear voice, 'Don't you know it's very bad manners to spy on people?'
He is so taken aback that for a moment he is speechless (not something to which he is accustomed) and he watches, fascinated, as the woman stands up from her tree stump. The della Francesca madonna morphs before his very eyes into a version of Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. What a sight! The woman coming towards him down the raised lawn echoes Duchamp's effect exactly! Her anger seems to spike the very air!
Innes has been steeped in the Dadaists of late, so much so that two nights previously he had a dream entirely within one of their paintings. 'My second favourite dream', he rates it. (The first is too graphic to relate.)
'It is also,' the madonna is bearing down on him, jaw set, hands on hips, and he has to say he is rather glad of the hedge between them, 'illegal. I am perfectly within my rights to summon a policeman.'
'I'm sorry,' he manages to say. 'My car. It seems to have broken down. I'm looking for a garage.'
'Does this look like a garage to you?' Her voice is not, as he might have expected, smoothed with a Devonian burr but sharp and cut like a diamond.
'Um. No. It does not.'
'Well, then,' she is advancing ever closer to her side of the hedge, 'goodbye.'
As she says this, Alexandra gets her first proper look at the peeping Tom. He has hair quite a bit longer than she has ever seen on a man. His shirt has an unusually high collar and is daffodil yellow. His suit is light grey needle cord and has no collar at all; the tie he is wearing is the colour of duck eggs. Alexandra comes two steps closer. Daffodils, her mind reiterates, duck eggs.
'I wasn't spying,' the man is protesting, 'I assure you. I'm seeking aid. I find myself in a bit of a fix. My car has broken down. Would you happen to know of a garage near here? I don't mean to tear you away from your baby but I have to be back in London sharpish as I have a print deadline. Nightmare upon nightmare. Any assistance and I'm your grateful slave.'
She blinks. She has never heard anyone speak like this before. Sharpish, fix, print deadline, nightmare upon nightmare, grateful slave. She would like to ask him to say it all again. Then part of the speech filters through to her. 'It's not my baby,' she snaps. 'It's nothing to do with me. It's my mother's.'
'Ah.' The man inclines his head sideways. 'I'm not sure I would categorise that as nothing to do with you.'
'No. It must at least be acknowledged as your sibling.'
There is a slight pause. Alexandra tries, without success, not to examine his clothes again. The shirt, that tie. Daffodils and eggs. 'You're from London, then?' she asks.
She sniffs. She adjusts the scarf across her forehead. She examines the bristles on the man's chin and wonders why he hasn't shaved. And, unfathomably, a half-formed plan of hers crystallises into a definite desire. 'I'm planning,' she says, 'on going to live in London myself.'
'Is that so?' The man starts to rummage animatedly in his pockets. He brings out an enamelled green cigarette case, removes two cigarettes and offers her one. She has to lean over the hedge to take it.
'Thank you,' she says. He lights it for her, cupping the match in his hands, then uses the same match on his own cigarette. Close up, she thinks, he smells of hair-oil, cologne and something else. But he moves back before she can identify it.
'Thanks,' she says again, indicating the cigarette, and inhales.
'And what,' the man says, as he shakes out the match and tosses it aside, 'may I ask, is holding you back?'
She thinks about this. 'Nothing,' she answers, and laughs. Because it's true. Nothing stands in her way. She nods towards the house. 'They don't know yet. And they'll be set against it. But they can't stop me.'
'That's the spirit,' he says, smoke curling from his mouth. 'So, you're running away to the capital?'
'Running,' Alexandra replies, drawing herself up to her full height, 'but not away. You can't run away from home if you've already left. I've been away at university.' She takes a draw on her cigarette, glances towards the house, then back at the man. 'Actually, I was sent down and-'
'From university?' the man cuts in, cigarette halfway to his mouth.
'How very dramatic. For what crime?'
'For no crime at all,' she returns, rather more heatedly than necessary because the injustice of it still stings. 'I was walking out of an exam and I came out of a door reserved for men. I'm not allowed to graduate unless I apologise. They,' she nods again at the house, 'didn't even want me to go to university in the first place but now they're not speaking to me until I go back and apologise.'
The man is looking at her as if committing her to memory. The stitching on his shirt is in blue cotton, she notices, the cuffs and the collar. 'And are you going to apologise?'
She flicks ash from her cigarette and shakes her head. 'I don't see why I should. I didn't even know it was only for men. There was no sign. And I said to them, “Well, where's the door for women?” and they said there wasn't one. So why should I say sorry?'
'Quite. Never say sorry unless you are sorry.' They smoke for a moment, not looking at each other. 'So,' the man says, eventually, 'what are you going to do in London?'
'I'm going to work of course. Though I might not get a job,' she says, suddenly despondent. 'Someone told me that for secretarial work you need a typing speed of sixty words per minute and I'm currently up to about three.'
He smiles. 'And where will you be living?'
'You ask a lot of questions.'
'Force of habit.' He shrugs unapologetically. 'I'm a journalist, among other things. So. Your digs. Where will they be?'
'I don't know if I want to tell you.'
'Why ever not? I shan't tell a soul. I'm very good about secrets.'
She throws her cigarette butt into the green, unfurling leaves of the hedge. 'Well, a friend gave me the address of a house for single women in Kentish Town. She said-'
His face betrays only the slightest twitch of amusement. 'A house for single women?'
'Yes. What's funny about that?'
'Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It sounds . . .' he gestures '. . . marvellous. Kentish Town. We'll be practically neighbours. I'm in Haverstock Hill. You should come and visit, if they allow you out.'
Alexandra arches her brows, as if pretending to think about it. Part of her doesn't want to give in to this man. There is something about him that suggests he is used to getting his way. For some reason she thinks thwarting him would do him good. 'That might be possible, I really don't know. Perhaps-'
Unfortunately for everyone, Dorothy chooses that moment to make her entrance. Some signal on her maternal radar has informed her of a male predator in the vicinity of her eldest daughter. 'May I help you?' she calls, in a tone that contradicts the sentence.
Alexandra whirls around to see her mother advancing down the lawn, baby's bottle held out like a pistol. She watches as Dorothy takes in the man, all the way from his light grey shoes to his collarless suit. By the sour turn to her mouth, Alexandra can tell at once that she does not like what she sees.
The man gives Dorothy a dazzling smile and his teeth appear very white against his tanned skin. 'Thank you, but this lady,' he gestures towards Alexandra, 'was assisting me.'
'My daughter,' Dorothy stresses the word, 'is rather busy this morning. Sandra, I thought you would be keeping an eye on the baby. Now, what can we-'
'Alexandra!' Alexandra shouts at her mother. 'My name is Alexandra!' She is aware that she is behaving like a cross child but she cannot bear this man to think her name is Sandra.
But her mother is adept at two things: ignoring her daughter's tantrums and extracting information from people. Dorothy listens to the story about the broken-down car and, within seconds, has dispatched the man off down the road with directions to a mechanic. He looks back once, raises his hand and waves.
Alexandra feels something close to rage, to grief, as she hears his footsteps recede down the lane towards the village. To have been so close to someone like him and then for him to be snatched away. She kicks the tree stump, then the baby's pram wheel. It is a particular brand of fury, peculiar to youth, that stifling, oppressive sensation of your elders outmanoeuvring you.
'What on earth is wrong with you?' Dorothy hisses, jiggling the pram handle because the baby has woken up, squawking and tussling. 'I come down here to find you flirting with some - some gypsy over the hedge. In broad daylight! For all to see. Where is your sense of decorum? What kind of an example are you setting for your brothers and sisters?'
'And, speaking of them,' Alexandra pauses before adding, 'all of them, where's your sense of decorum?' She sets off up the garden. She cannot spend another second in her mother's company.
Dorothy stops jiggling the handle of the pram and stares after her, open-mouthed. 'What do you mean?' she shouts, forgetting momentarily the proximity of the neighbours. 'How dare you? How dare you address me in such a fashion? I'll be speaking to your father about this, I will, as soon as he-'
'Speak! Speak away!' Alexandra hurls over her shoulder as she sprints up the garden and crashes her way into the house surprising, as she does so, a patient of her father's who is waiting in the hallway.
As she reaches the bedroom she is forced to share with three of her younger siblings, she can still hear her mother's voice, screeching from the garden: 'Am I the only one in this house to demand standards? I don't know where you think you're going. You're supposed to be helping me today. You're meant to be minding the baby. And the silver needs doing and the china. Who do you think is going to do it? The ghosts?'
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Maggie O'Farrell has a way with words that transcends her from writer to wordsmith and this book reinforces that for me. This is a story of inter-generational love and the minute ways one moment, one person (even from another time and place) can affect our lives. From the cover to the thick, offset pages, to the beautifully woven story printed within, this book was amazing. I believe some things are better left unsaid. Sometimes it is best to take a chance, to not know what a book is about and to get it anyways. To read it. To immerse yourself into a story worth every second. This is THE book. This is THE author. It is hard to fail with any piece by Maggie O'Farrell. I left this book longing for more, wanting to know what happens next, where did these characters end up? And I can't give any higher compliment than that... read it! You won't regret it.
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.
I loved this book. It kept me reading as I was wanting to know how the two sets of characters were connected which was revealed near the end of the story. Like another reviewer mentioned it leaves you wondering what happens to these characters in the end. Perhaps this will be the subject for a sequel. This is my first Maggie O'Farrell book but I plan on checking out her other books soon. I definitely consider this book one of the best I have read in 2010. I look forward to reading future Maggie O'Farrell novels. She is an excellent writer.
I read Maggie O'Farrell's novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox a few years back and found it a haunting story. I looked forward to reading her next book, The Hand That First Held Mine. It's not a book that grabbed me right away, but I'm glad I stuck with it because the resolution of the story was heartbreaking. O'Farrell expertly weaves two stories together, and I didn't know where she going with it until about three quarters of the way through, and then I was devastated. The story alternates between Lexie, a young girl who leaves her family in the country to move to the big city after she meets a mysterious older man on the road outside her house. Innes Kent becomes her lover and mentor as she works for his magazine. Innes is married, but that doesn't stop them. Years later we met Ted and Elina. Elina has just gone through a traumatic birth, losing four pints of blood in the process. She has a difficult time caring for the baby, but Ted must go back to work as an editor. He worries about Elina and the baby, and then he begins to have blackouts. The birth of his child has triggered something in him, something he has repressed. Ted tries to put together what happened in his childhood that could be causing his troubles today. He remembers a lovely woman holding his hand, but it isn't the hand of his mother, who is a cold woman. As Ted tries to put the pieces together, the story lines meet. O'Farrell is a marvelous story teller, and one passage just flat-out knocked me out. A mother, upon knowing she is drowning and will not see her young son grow thinks, "She would not see him grow as tall as her then taller. She would not be there when someone first broke his heart or when he first drove a car or when he went out alone into the world or when he saw, for the first time, what he would do, how he would love and with whom and where. She would not be there to knock sand out of his shoes when he came off the beach. She would not see him again." As a mother, those words just devastated me. It is every mother's nightmare. I liked the character growth of Lexie, and that surprised me as I didn't like her at first. I also enjoyed that I didn't see where this book would end up, that is unusual for me, and I think that shows the skill of the author.
There are two parallel stories, set about 40-50 years apart. First, we meet Alexandra Sinclair, (Lexie), who leaves a country village to experience life in London, with the encouragement of a man she meets right outside her door one day. This man, Innes Kent, will impact her life in unexpected ways and for many years. Across time, we meet young parents, Ted and Elina. Elina is a Finnish artist, but she has just given birth to a boy, and almost bled to death in the process. She navigates her new life, and attempts to pull her boyfriend Ted into a more active role in his son's life. Chapters alternate between past and present in a link to finally see the whole picture.
I'll admit, I struggled in the beginning. The multiple story lines left me a but confused... but also intrigued. I wanted to know why it was written this way, so I kept reading. I also grew to admire, appreciate, and then love the characters and their strength. Near the end, I was mesmerized, picking up each tidbit of a connection, dying to see how all of the pieces fit together, yet equally distraught and depressed by the forseeable conclusion. It was heartwrenching, but moments were so heartwarming. A wonderful read. It demonstrates the unfathomable bond and ahcnge that is motherhood, and also gives us a glimpse of true love that is non traditional, but lovely nonetheless.
This is my first experience with Maggie O'Farrell and I'm hooked! The writing style is captivating and the short story at the end is mind-blowing.
The Hand That First Held Mine starts with Lexie Sinclair, raised in a wealthy, country family, she flees to postwar London looking for excitement and stimulation. She takes up with Innes, an older man who owns and edits a magazine. As a reporter she develops into a fascinating woman, strong and opinionated, but with a tender connection to Innes. Switch to modern day and we meet Elina and Ted, a young couple who have just had a baby through a traumatic birth. As a new father Ted begins to have disturbing visions and memories that he can't place or explain. Elina struggles to recover from the birth and, conversely, seems to be losing her memories. In the end, the two stories are linked through a horrible tragedy. I loved the parts of the book about Lexie. She is grows a lot during the book and develops into a woman I would like to know. Her experiences shape her in interesting, yet realistic ways. The modern day story is not as well-written with Ted and Elina seeming to drift in a haze, not knowing what direction to take. The climatic ending was great, but the middle of the book could have used a little more oomph. I didn't enjoy The Hand That First Held Mine as much as The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, but it was worth the read. I listened to the audio version of The Hand That First Held Mine, read by Anne Flosnick. I am a sucker for a British accent and she hers is a nice, subtle one. I do wish she had used a more pronounced difference for the voices of Lexie and Elina and for the two plot lines in general.
Haunting novel told in two parts.What I didn't like is that it took 90% into the book to finally get a glimpse of how these two independent stories are related.Elin and Ted have just had a baby boy. Elin had lost a lot of blood, and almost died. Ted who has a bad memory appears to have his earlier life as a child come back to him in fits and starts.Lexie and Innes are boho Soho journalists in 1950s London.I LOVE MAGGIE O"FARRELL. Her stories have such intenstity, she writes with such descriptive force, you feel likeyou are in them.
A poignant novel about love and loss, identity and memory, and how all of these infuse (and confuse) the relationships between parents and children. O'Farrell is an elegantly incisive writer and there is rarely a misplaced or superfluous phrase in her descriptions of her characters or the worlds they inhabit. In this book she has created not one but two memorable female characters, whose stories, though separated in time, eventually intersect in a way that satisfies both the internal demands of the plot and the emotional responses of the reader. Lexie, finding her way in the exciting but tumultuous world of postwar Soho, and Elina, struggling to find her footing after the birth of her first child in present-day London, are at once fully realized individuals within specific historical and cultural contexts and touchstones for universal experiences of love and motherhood.Also highly recommended: O'Farrell's The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.
The Hand That First Held Mine starts with Lexie Sinclair, raised in a wealthy, country family, she flees to postwar London looking for excitement and stimulation. She takes up with Innes, an older man who owns and edits a magazine. As a reporter she develops into a fascinating woman, strong and opinionated, but with a tender connection to Innes. Switch to modern day and we meet Elina and Ted, a young couple who have just had a baby through a traumatic birth. As a new father Ted begins to have disturbing visions and memories that he can't place or explain. Elina struggles to recover from the birth and, conversely, seems to be losing her memories.In the end, the two stories are linked through a horrible tragedy. I loved the parts of the book about Lexie. She is grows a lot during the book and develops into a woman I would like to know. Her experiences shape her in interesting, yet realistic ways. The modern day story is not as well-written with Ted and Elina seeming to drift in a haze, not knowing what direction to take. The climatic ending was great, but the middle of the book could have used a little more oomph. I didn't enjoy The Hand That First Held Mine as much as The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, but it was worth the read.I listened to the audio version of The Hand That First Held Mine, read by Anne Flosnick. I am a sucker for a British accent and she hers is a nice, subtle one. I do wish she had used a more pronounced difference for the voices of Lexie and Elina and for the two plot lines in general.
[The Hand the First Held Mine] tells of two interweaving sets of lives, one that begins with a women, Lexie, 21 in the mid fifities, and just about to leave home for good. She is an independent woman who works as an arts and news writer when woman mostly didn't, and is also independent about her relationships. The other strand is about a young couple in the present day who have just had a baby. Elina almost died during the birth, and she is shaken by it for a time, and so is her husband, Ted. The story has to do with losing and regaining memory, and with the ties between people. The characters are both fragile and very strong. It is another that I put other books aside to read, and is very strong.
This was my first time reading Maggie O'Farrell. To be honest, at first I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy this book. I am so happy that I stuck with it through the first few chapters because it is one of the most enjoyable books I've read. The author alternates between the story lines of Lexie and Innes and Ted and Elina. We go back and forth in time, following these two couples through several years of their lives. Lexie Sinclair leaves home as a young woman, determined to break away from her stifling household and parents. She goes to London to follow a mysterious man she has met only once. Innes Kent becomes Lexie's lover and also starts her on her career as a journalist. Alternately, we follow Ted and Elina as they experience parenthood for the first time. After a very dangerous, life-threatening birth experience Elina is struggling to recover from childbirth and Ted starts having strange flashbacks to his childhood. The author so accurately and honestly captures the overwhelming, exhausting sensation of new motherhood. She doesn't sugarcoat it, and manages to capture both the eclipsing love and the excrutiating tireness a new mother feels simultaneously. I won't give away the storyline, but suffice it to say I became very engaged in both sets of stories which culminate in a dramatic conclusion which broke my heart. I highly recommend this read and will definitely check out other Maggie O'Farrell novels.
Disappointing after The Disappearing Act of Esme Lennox. The book started off slow and concluded too fast with nothing really original or exciting in between.
Post-Partum issues have been all over my reading lately. Although her children were older, April from Revolutionary Road clearly had issues. Elina from The Hand that First Held Mine does as well. We first meet Elina in bed at home with Ted upset that their baby was gone. While Ted misunderstood her to mean that someone had taken the baby from their home, Elina meant that the baby was missing from her womb. She could not remember giving birth to their son at all. That was just the beginning of the issues she encountered as a woman approaching new motherhood after a difficult, nearly fatal, birth. Couple her reality with Ted¿s growing sense that something isn¿t right with himself and it¿s enough to put anyone on edge. While her experiences and mine were different, I felt so close to her because I understood exactly what she was going through. In fact, there was one similarity between her baby and mine that I reread the section to make sure I wasn¿t inserting my own experience into Elina¿s. I hadn¿t been and, unlike earlier reading, this comforted me instead of making me anxious. This novel validated my life experience in that way.Lexie¿s story is a rebelliously fun ride through London¿s Soho district during it¿s Bohemian days. Lexie had the spunk to renounce the life of her parents and take off for the big city in a time when ¿good girls¿ didn¿t go anywhere or do much of anything by themselves. She was a free spirit who experienced the misfortune of loving and being loved by an unhappily married man. Her sections of the novel were filled with art determination. As much as I found a kindred spirit in Elina, I had fun with Lexie and when the links between their two stories began to emerge, it was very satisfying.I have always wanted to read Maggie O¿Farrell¿s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. I hadn¿t, and that was why I agreed to read this novel when asked by her publicist. I didn¿t want O¿Farrell to drop off my radar. She most definitely will not. Not only did I enjoy her story telling, her writing enhanced it. Although I would caution those readers currently experiencing Post-Partum Depression or those who still become uncomfortable reading about it, I highly recommend The Hand That First Held Mine. It¿s a vivid story of motherhood that honors the whole woman.
¿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. I read two other books...and then came back to ¿The Hand that First Held Mine¿...and I was hooked. Something about the story had changed, or I'd been wondering about the characters...and I inhaled the last third of the book.Something about this story of couples and parents in two different time periods but in the same places had worked on my imagination. I had to know what happened...both in the future and in the past. I'd grown accustomed to the rhythm of their lives and the scenery of their world and had to have more.¿He feels for a moment the vastness of the city, the whole breathing breadth of it and he feels as if he and this girl, this woman, are sitting together in its very centre, at the very eye of its storm, and he feels as if they might be the only people who are doing this, who have ever done this.¿I can't explain what grabbed me at the end of this book, I can only say that I almost couldn't turn the pages fast enough. I had to know how all of these lives tied into one another...what might have happened in one character's past to determine another character's future. I had to experience what they did...yet in some cases I already had.¿So, she thinks to herself, no walk for you today. And she must sit here for however long he sleeps. Which isn't the worst thing in the world, is it? But for a moment it seems to Elina that it is. She has such an urge, such an ache to go out, to see something other than the interior walls of this house, to apprehend the world, to move about in it. Sometimes she finds herself eying Ted when he has come in from work, when the life of the city still seems to cling to him. She sometimes wants to stand near to him, to sniff him, to catch the scent of it. She wants, desperately, to be somewhere else ¿ anywhere else.¿Ulitmately, I think this story is about the ferocity of love. Specifically the love between a mother and a child. The bond that exists between them ¿ an invisible, nearly unbreakable bond. A bond that is magical, and terrifying and inexplicable. There is beauty in this story, beauty in words and action and descriptions. But none was more beautiful for me than the story about that bond.¿The women we become after children...We lose muscle tone, slee
Unfortunately, The Hand that First Held Mine is one of those books about which I have no strong feelings, and I have been wracking my brain trying to discern why this may be. The mysterious connection is compelling. Each character's story is intriguing. The descriptions are amazingly clear and easily pictured. I really did enjoy the story. So what is it about the story that still has me feeling blank a week after finishing it? It wasn't until I started writing this review before I finally figured it out.For one thing, Elina's postpartum depression is amazingly difficult to read. The detailed descriptions make her pain, confusion and pain that much more uncomfortable to watch unfold. In addition, there is a pervading sense of doom on each page of the story that draws the reader into turning the page while making the act of reading each page uncomfortable and nerve-wracking. Lexie, as the more vibrant and capable of the characters, remains one of the bright spots of the novel, but even when her story takes center stage, the reader is left with a feeling of foreshadowing at her ultimate future. This haunting feeling persists throughout the story.The connection between the characters was surprising only because it should not have been so. With hindsight, I get the impression that Ms. O'Farrell deliberately misdirects the reader from realizing the connection only because the connection is glaringly obvious once the reader figures it out. While this may seem like it would detract from the overall story, in fact it only adds to the reader's enjoyment because s/he gets the chance to find the hints that were there all along.One of my favorite things about the book was the focus on motherhood and how it changes everything. Much like this book, motherhood is one of those things that women only truly understand when they become mothers themselves. Whether one suffers from postpartum depression, embraces motherhood from the first moment of realizing one's pending bundle of joy, or falls somewhere in the middle, every mother can appreciate the changes to body and to life a child brings to her world: "We change shape...we buy low-heeled shoes, we cut off our long hair. We begin to carry in our bags half-eaten rusks, a small tractor, a shred of beloved fabric, a plastic doll. We lose muscle tone, sleep, reason, perspective. Our hearts begin to live outside our bodies. They breath, they eat, they crawl and - look! - they walk, they begin to speak to us. We learn that we must sometimes walk an inch at a time, to stop and examine every stick, every stone, every squashed tin along the way. We get use to not getting where we were going. We learn to darn, perhaps to cook, to patch the knees of dungarees. We get used to living with a love that suffuses us, suffocates us, blinds us, controls us. We love. We contemplate our bodies, our stretched skin, those threads of silver around our brows, our strangely enlarged feet. We learn to look less in the mirror. We put our dry-clean-only clothes to the back of the wardrobe. Eventually, we throw them away. We school ourselves to stop saying 'shit' and 'damn' and learn to say 'my goodness' and 'heavens above'. We give up smoking, we colour our hair, we search the vistas of parks, swimming-pools, libraries, cafes for others of our kind. We know each other by our pushchairs, our sleepless gaves, the beakers we carry. We learn how to cool a fever, ease a cough, the four indicators of meningitis, that one must sometimes push a swing for two hours. We buy biscuit cutters, washable paints, aprons, plastic bowls. We no longer tolerate delayed buses, fighting in the street, smoking in restaurants, sex after midnight, inconsistency, laziness, being cold. We contemplate younger women as they pass us in the street, with their cigarettes, their makeup, their tight-seamed dresses, their tiny handbags, their smooth, washed hair, and we turn away, we put down our heads, we keep on pushing the pram up the hill." (page 25
I love O'Farrell and this book didn't disappoint. Not only does she write well but she creates a wonderful story with compelling characters and a bit of mystery. The focus is just on particular events in the lives of each character and there is no development beyond that. Most of O'Farrell's work revolves around hidden identity and I knew that is where this was headed and I thoroughly enjoyed the journey.
This stunning book tells the stories of two women- two mothers- whose lives are changed first by love and then by motherhood. These two separate stories highlight the differences between women's lives in the post-WWII and modern day eras and also the similarities of the ties that bind them. As Lexie and Elina struggle with love and loss, Elina's husband Ted struggles with the memories he can't escape (Elina almost dying in childbirth) and those he cannot call to mind (his entire childhood is a blank). As this book builds to its stunning conclusion, these two stories collide in an unexpectedly graceful way. Though the book was a little hard to sink into at first, by the time I hit page 30, I knew I couldn't put it down until finished. Highly recommended!
I read Maggie O'Farrell's novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox a few years back and found it a haunting story. I looked forward to reading her next book, The Hand That First Held Mine.It's not a book that grabbed me right away, but I'm glad I stuck with it because the resolution of the story was heartbreaking. O'Farrell expertly weaves two stories together, and I didn't know where she going with it until about three quarters of the way through, and then I was devastated.The story alternates between Lexie, a young girl who leaves her family in the country to move to the big city after she meets a mysterious older man on the road outside her house. Innes Kent becomes her lover and mentor as she works for his magazine. Innes is married, but that doesn't stop them.Years later we met Ted and Elina. Elina has just gone through a traumatic birth, losing four pints of blood in the process. She has a difficult time caring for the baby, but Ted must go back to work as an editor. He worries about Elina and the baby, and then he begins to have blackouts. The birth of his child has triggered something in him, something he has repressed.Ted tries to put together what happened in his childhood that could be causing his troubles today. He remembers a lovely woman holding his hand, but it isn't the hand of his mother, who is a cold woman. As Ted tries to put the pieces together, the story lines meet.O'Farrell is a marvelous story teller, and one passage just flat-out knocked me out. A mother, upon knowing she is drowning and will not see her young son grow thinks,"She would not see him grow as tall as her then taller. She would not be there when someone first broke his heart or when he first drove a car or when he went out alone into the world or when he saw, for the first time, what he would do, how he would love and with whom and where. She would not be there to knock sand out of his shoes when he came off the beach. She would not see him again."As a mother, those words just devastated me. It is every mother's nightmare.I liked the character growth of Lexie, and that surprised me as I didn't like her at first. I also enjoyed that I didn't see where this book would end up, that is unusual for me, and I think that shows the skill of the author.
Having seen this reviewed 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.
The Hand That First Held Mine features two main characters. Lexie Sinclair has just left her backwater country home for faster paced London. Soon she is finding love with a dashing older married man and a career as a journalist, reporting on art and artists. We first meet Elina, an artist and another Londoner, as she wakes up to discover she has had a baby. She remembers being pregnant, but the actual giving birth part seems to be missing from her memory. At the outset, London and art seem to be the only things the two women who are generations apart from each other have in common, and O'Farrell uses the city artfully to tell the women's stories in tandem. As Lexie blossoms and falls in love and Elina blunders dazedly through her first weeks of motherhood, there is much more to be revealed about how the two women are connected across the generations. Maggie O'Farrell has a unique writing style that just works so well. It's not terribly radical, but it's still unlike so much of what I find myself reading. The Hand That First Held Mine is like a present you might unwrap slowly, revealing bit by bit what lies at the center, the captivating characters and how they are connected despite being generations apart. Yet, oddly, even as you peel off layer after layer, you find that as the people and the plot are being exposed, you are the one being wrapped up in it all. O'Farrell captures so well the minutia of being a bewildered first time mother, of being in a new place where you've always wanted to be for the first time, of falling in love, of death, of grief, of healing. She draws out the mundane and the extraordinary in her characters' lives in bit and pieces of nonconsecutive scenes, and somehow, while you're busy being taken in by these individual crisply descriptive scenes, she is enveloping you totally in her tale so that you can hardly separate yourself from it, let alone put it down.