The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell

I don’t know about you but am I the only blogger who wishes they had cottoned onto all of this blogging malarkey about three or four years (maybe five or six) before they actually did? The reason that I have been thinking about that is that I could have shared my thoughts on so many other books with you all, one such book would be on that Granny Savidge Reads made me purchase and was ‘The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox’ by Maggie O’Farrell which we both thought was marvellous. However I can share my thoughts with you on the latest which I was rather delighted to get an advance copy of.

First off I should say it will be hard to do this book justice full stop, it will also be hard to say too much without giving everything away and spoiling it for the reader. There are two main stories running through ‘The Hand That First Held Mine’. One is the story of Lexie a recently graduated student who finds herself back at home in rural Devon with her family and younger siblings. When she finds Innes Kent spying on her over her garden wall she soon finds her chance to escape and ends up in the midst of the streets of London’s Soho during the bohemian 1950’s and part of a rather unconventional, but very touching for the reader, love story.

The other story set in the present day is of Elina, a woman who has not long had a baby though she cannot remember the birth at all one minute she was pregnant the next there was a baby by the bed, and her husband Ted who knows what happened and doesn’t want to tell her. As the book goes on O’Farrell very carefully allows us glimpses into these two very different worlds slowly filling in the blanks and adding in some subtle twists, plotting and weaving the two stories together slowly revealing how they are connected. I make it sound like there is no plot, there is – well there are two, I just don’t want to spoil anything for the reader. I will say I found both stories incredibly readable, you want to know what happens with both couple for very different reasons as there are things left unsaid and tensions bubbling under the surfaces.

Some reviews I have seen have bemoaned that the connection is too obvious but I didn’t really start to figure it out until two thirds of the way through. However this isn’t a mystery story for the reader to figure out it’s a tale of two wonderful female leads and their lives, though readers might like to be prepared for some shocks and the possible need for some hankies. It is also about the characters around them, for example Lexie has a wonderful strong willed landlady and Innes’ ex’s while Elina has a matriarchal mother-in-law to contend with.

For me the star of the whole book was the writing. Every single sentence was a real joy to read and seemed to have been crafted with care as if every word counted and that is a rare find I think. In some ways it reminded me of the way Brooklyn was crafted though the stories are nothing a like at all. The fact that on top of this atmospheric and beautiful writing are two such interesting women, a whole cast of wonderful crafted characters and a plot makes this a wonderful book for the reader, you won’t want to rush it rather savour every line page by page. 9/10

Here’s one of my favourite parts of the book which shows how beautifully written cinematic and captivating I think the prose is;

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, appears to envelop Lexie in a shirt and push her across the room, the pillows jump on to the bed, Lexie zooms backwards towards the window. Then they are back on the bed and they are both naked and, goodness, doesn’t sex look oddly the same in reverse, except now they are lovingly putting on each others clothes, one by one, then whisking out of the door, running down the stairs, and Innes is pulling the key out of his door. The film speeds up. There are Innes and Lexie in his car, scooting backwards along a road, Lexie with a scarf over her head. There they are forking food out of their mouths in a restaurant and putting it down on plates, here they are in bed again and their clothes fly towards them. Here is a woman in a red pillbox hat walking in reverse away from Lexie. Here is Lexie again looking up at a building in Soho, then she is walking away from it with a jerky, reversed gait. Lexie is walking backwards up a long, dim stair case. The film is getting faster and faster. A train pulls out of a big smoke-filled station, rattles backwards though countryside. At a small station, Lexie is seen to get out and put down her suitcase. And the film ends. We are back, neatly, to where we left off.”

I now rather desperately want to read the rest of Maggie O’Farrell’s work even more than I did after reading ‘Esme’, especially after I saw her talking, despite a cold, at Foyle’s on Tuesday with Lionel Shriver. I am wondering if Maggie O’Farrell is eligible for the Man Booker if so I wouldn’t be shocked, rather delighted in fact, to see this getting long listed. As to her previous works what would you recommend? I have to say I might pace myself as I think they will be books to treasure and I don’t want to run out of them.

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell (if you haven’t read it you should)
Brooklyn – Colm Toibin (for the writing)



Filed under Books of 2010, Headline Review, Maggie O'Farrell, Review

38 responses to “The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell

  1. Fantastic that you got to go and see her speak – I am so envious and desperate to read this – as I said on twitter it feels like I am the only person who hasn’t read this! And my library STILL hasn’t got hold of a copy!! I think Maggie O’Farrell is a real gem, and I agree with your prose partners too 🙂

    • It only came out yesterday so hopefully libraries will be getting some in the not too distant future. I have never thought about the speed in which libraries get their stock. I think i just imagine its automatic. Maggie O’Farrell is marvellous from the two I have read but am very keen to read them all, though must show restraint as she only has three more for me to get my mitts on.

  2. I just started reading this Simon so apart from seeing that you love it I haven’t read your review in any depth – I will come back and do that once I have finished. I so want to savour this one but Maggie O’Farrell is one of my all time favourite authors – I think she is absolutely fantastic, amazing, awesome etc… – and I just can’t help reading it quickly!!

    • Hahaha thats understandable Karen, I do exactly the same when someoen else has reada book I have started or are due to in the not too distant future.

      It’s hard not to race through this one but well worth the read either way.

  3. Dot

    Wow, this sounds so good! I love Maggie O’Farrell, I think that her writing stays with you long after you have finished the book. I am going to have to get a copy of this!

  4. Beate

    Dearest Simon !
    I’m afraid I won’t be able to read your lovely blog in the near future if you carry on like that: I mean presenting each and every day a new book I instantly feel the desperate need to buy and read the moment I’ve closed my computer 😉 My TBR list is getting longer each and every day !!!
    Your review sounds absolutely fantastic . Thank you so much for sharing this with us !
    I guess I won’t have to say how terribly jealous I am of your meeting with both authors. You’re just on the bright side of life – or are living in the right place 🙂

    • Hahahaha thats just made me really laugh after starting reading that being really worried. I do apologise, a dud is on its way though I have to say.

      I think its more a case of living in the right place. Mind you I have Twitter of all things to thank as I had no idea that this event was on but it was marvellous and made me want to read the book again. I also am now going to hAVE to read We Need To Talk About Kevin.

  5. Thank you for bringing this author to my notice. Hadnt heard of her at all.

  6. Sue

    I echo Beate – I still have Skin Lane and Brooklyn on the pile waiting, what with you and Dovegreyreader offering such tantalising descriptions there just aren’t the hours in the day.

    But also many thanks for nudging me into widening my reading choices by introducing new authors.You’ve also prompted me to start a reading notebook to write down my own thoughts about the books I read.

    • Reading notebooks are the best. I might do a post on them over the next week or two, especially as I have treated myself to some rather lovely ones too of late. If I can’t buy books I have to turn to stationery its the only way forward.

  7. This book sounds excellent! I definitely want to get my hands on it.

  8. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an ARC of this book and I was completely blown away. It was my first O’Farrell, but it certainly won’t be the last. I was not prepared for the nuanced psychology as well as the terrific writing, and it’s all made me extremely excited to read her other books!

    • It is a stunning book. I am intrigued how american audiences will take to the fact that London is almost a character in itself and hope its not alienating. Its written so vividly it shouldnt be.

  9. I loved The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and am really, really looking forward to reading this one too. I’m so happy to see all of the great reviews for it and to know that I have yet another wonderful book awaiting me!

  10. Mark Underwood

    Simon, this sounds like one of her better novels. Loved ‘After You’d Gone’ but she lost her way a bit with ‘My Lover’s Lover.’ ‘The Vanishing Act..’ needs dusting off my book shelf by the sounds of it.

    • A fellow book blogger said to me just the other day that they find every other of Maggie O’Farrell’s books is a hit with them and so this one should be good, ha. I have found this one and the last great but I can’t vouch for any of her work before that but am very much looking forward to finding out.

  11. Claire

    I can’t wait to read this! My favourite of her novels is After You’d Gone; I frequently reach for it as a re-read. How lucky you are to be discovering this wonderful author!

  12. I’ve only read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by this author – I’m partly saving her other books as a treat, and partly afraid they won’t live up to Esme! Plus they are never in the library when I go. Sounds like My Lover’s Lover is not a favorite, so I may read that one first and get all disappointment out of the way early on.

    • I can only compare this to Esme, which I am slightly loathed to do because every book should stand in its own right – its only natural though, this was as good as Esme (so therefore excellent) they are quite different from each other though.

  13. Nicola Smith

    Great review – I’m really looking forward to reading this one. I LOVED The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – one of few books that made me cry. And I’ve just read Brooklyn, your other prose partner, and loved that one too.

    • If you loved Esme I think you will like this a lot, not that they are the same. I actually found this book much more joyful than Esme whilst also being much sadder too.

  14. i have only skimmed your review since i have a galley of this that i’m hoping to get to very soon, but i have a feeling i’m going to enjoy it just as much as you!

  15. Thanks for letting me know about this book. I have “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox” in my home library and enjoyed it very much.

  16. I managed to walk past this in Waterstones today but my excuse is that I had to feed my accompanying children’s book habit and cannot remortgage again for a while…

    Esme was a triumph, my favourite Maggie O’ Farrell
    novel and Brooklyn was another favourite of mine last year – such beautiful writing – so it looks like you’re going to be responsible for bankrupting me – thank you!! 😉

  17. PS – I found The Passage equally addictive and I didn’t even know that I liked vampire novels!

  18. Oh, I can’t wait to get my hands on this one, for I love her writing. My favourite? “After you’d gone”, which stayed with me for a long time afterwards. One mental image of looking in a mirror still sends a shiver down my spine, so beautifully written was it. (You’ll know which bit when you read it!)

  19. Have read so many good things about this! Very excited! And I promise, if I love it, I’ll also read Esme Lennox. 😀

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