The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
Hardcover, 341 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
Hardcover, 341 pages
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.
The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell follows the lives of two women whose lives are separated by fifty years. Lexie Sinclair is living in 1950's London while Elina Vilkuna is living in present-day London. For most of the novel the lives of the two women are separate, but as most readers will predict, a connection between the two women is revealed late in the novel.
We meet Lexie (Alexandra) Sinclair first, as she meets the love of her life Innes Kent. Lexie leaves her family home and moves to London where she ends up working for Innes and becomes a journalist/writer for his magazine. She becomes a knowledgeable art critic and eventually makes her own way in the world. We meet Ted, a film editor, and Elina, an artist, right after she has given birth to a son. It was a difficult delivery, almost fatal, and Elina is having a difficult time remembering what happened and is struggling to care for a newborn and recover. The difficult birth of his son and almost losing Elina triggers suppressed memories that begin to plague Ted's life.
The Hand That First Held Mine explores the complex relationship between mothers and their children, love, and art, as well as the roles of women in the 1950's-60's versus today. Both Lexie and Elina are unwed mothers, but what that means is very different based on the decades separating them. O'Farrell manages to create two complex character-driven plot lines that explore relationships. The narrative following Lexie Sinclair is strong throughout the whole novel, while that of Elina and Ted starts out weak, but gets better later in the novel. (The cover on the hardcover edition of this novel is great - a picture on a translucent cover while another picture on the cover of the book shows through.) Highly Recommended
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. opening
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. pg. 6
'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.' pg. 9-10
'When?' she says. 'When did I have it?'
'...El, are you - ' he stops himself, rubs a hand over his face, then says, in a more level voice, 'Four days ago. You had three days of labour and then... and then he came. You came out of hospital last night. You discharged yourself.'
There is a pause. Elina thinks about what Ted has said. She lays out the facts with which he has provided here, side by side, in her head. Hospital, baby, discharged, three days of labour. She considers the idea of three days and she considers the pain in her abdomen but decides not to mention it now. pg. 16
He wishes he could forget what has happened, like he forgets so many other things. He wishes he could take a cloth to it and rub it out; he wishes he could pull a screen or blind down over it; he wishes that every time he looked at her he didn't see the thinness of her skin, the unbearable fragility of her veins, how easy they would be to puncture. Most of all he wishes it had never happened. He wishes she were still pregnant, sitting here beside him, that the baby was still in her, that they were both safe and she was still complete. pg. 37
She has no idea that she will die young, that she will not have as much time as she thinks. For now she has just discovered the love of her life, and death couldn't be further from her mind. pg. 50