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The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell Book Cover

Title: The Hand that First Held Mine

Author: Maggie O’Farrell

No. of Pages: 341

First Released: April 2010

Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):  “In the thrilling, underground world of bohemian post-war London, Lexie Sinclair is making an extraordinary life for herself. Taken up by magazine editor Innes Kent, she learns to be a reporter, to know art and artists, to embrace her life fully and with a deep love at the center of it.

Later, in present-day London, a young painter named Elina dizzily navigates the first weeks of motherhood. Her boyfriend, Ted, traumatized by nearly losing her in labor, begins to recover lost memories. He cannot place them. But as they become more disconcerting and happen more frequently, we discover that something connects these two stories — these two women — something that becomes all the more heartbreaking and beautiful as they all hurtle toward its revelation.”

Comments and Critique:  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 254)

Ultimately, this book is one ode to motherhood – no matter what type of mother you may be, we are all united in what we face and experience through our children and our love for those children. In the end, this is what makes The Hand that First Held Mine an amazing read. It’s a sneaky one, as there are no easy answers, no immediate sense of love or hate. Readers must work to make sense of their feelings about the book, but once they do, they find their efforts fully rewarded. Because of the efforts required to truly appreciate the novel, The Hand that First Held Mine is not for everyone. However, if you do take a chance, you will find yourself enjoying the beauty behind the pain of motherhood , an interesting mystery and thoroughly memorable characters.

Thank you to NetGalley for a free copy of this book for review on my e-reader!

I’m curious if others felt the same way upon reading this novel. Do you agree with my assessment? Did you get something else out of the novel? Let’s discuss!

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