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The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie…

The Hand That First Held Mine (edition 2011)

by Maggie O'Farrell

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7815011,802 (3.85)60
Title:The Hand That First Held Mine
Authors:Maggie O'Farrell
Info:Mariner Books (2011), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 360 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell

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Showing 1-5 of 49 (next | show all)
A slow start, but ultimately a very gripping read. Many of the same themes as O'Farrell's earlier novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. ( )
  gayla.bassham | Nov 7, 2016 |
A story composed of two interwoven narratives that come together and make sense at the end. In the 1950s we follow girl-about-town Lexie Sinclair, her love affair and its aftermath.
And in a contemporary story, we meet new parents Ted and Elena, coping with the first weeks after a particularly horrific birth. Ted is also beset by mysterious 'memories' from a past he knows nothing of.
As I read this, I found myself getting a bit fed up with newborn babies, breastfeeding and all the rest, and was dismissing it as just another bit of chick-lit. But when I got to the last chapter on Lexie, her feelings for her toddler son... it was truly beautifully written.
So I would give this 3.5 if I could, based on that chapter alone! ( )
  starbox | Jul 9, 2016 |
I found this to be a moving and beautiful novel. As others have noted, this is a tale about mothers and love and Maggie O'Farrell manages to tell the story of what it can be like to have a baby in a sympathetic and authentic way.
The novel alternates between two stories, Lexi in the 50s and Elina in contemporary London, it was clear these two tales would eventually collide and I found myself searching out the truth in the contemporary story, trying to work out family trees and realise who was who. Ted, Elisa's partner, struggles as the birth of his son helps him to remember buried memories from his past and these snatches of memory are beautifully done. The nappy incident in the cloakroom is vivid and horrific and I wondered, is this written from experience. The novel is full of the everyday, told with an honesty and in a way that is rich with meaning and it drew me in and hooked me so that I couldn't wait to finish this excellent novel. ( )
  Tifi | Mar 23, 2016 |
Love the overlapping of past and present
another one that was hard to put down. ( )
  SkiKatt68 | Feb 26, 2016 |
First posted at https://olduvaireads.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/the-hand-that-first-held-mine-by-maggie-ofarrell/

There are books that are page turners, whose every line drives the heartbeat up, the hours tick by like nothing at all, and your face turns blue holding your breath too long as you rush your way to the last page.

This is not that kind of book.

It is a quiet sort of book. A story that can be dipped into here and there, as I did. My copy was located upstairs in the loft, once Wee-er Reader’s bedroom now the playroom/Lego-room. It’s a good room for playing in during the colder months, it’s warmer upstairs and is at the front of the house so it gets plenty of sunshine especially in the afternoons. I would read a few pages here, then someone would ask me to play or plonk a Lego creation on my lap (on the book), or they would fight over the same toy, the same chair, or the littler one would wander out of the loft and disappear for a while, making me poke my head out of my book and call for him. Sometimes he wanders back, other times he’s giggling off in a corner somewhere and I wonder, crap, did I forget to close the door to the laundry room/bathroom/guestroom and have to go in search of him. He’s a wanderer that one, and as am I, having gotten sidetracked in this post already!

And so we return to Alexandra Sinclair who, in a bid for freedom, moves to London, calls herself Lexie, takes up a new job at a magazine, and a new man, Innes Kent, “aged thirty-four, art dealer, journalist, critic, self-confessed hedonist”. A new life, seemingly ordinary for today’s woman, but rather forward for the time, mid-1950s, for someone just 22.

“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.”

Elina is living in contemporary times. An artist, she has just given birth and is coping, or attempting to cope, with the terrifying early stages of motherhood. Doesn’t help that she almost died on the operating table. And seems to have these lapses where she is lost, mentally, emotionally:

“Maybe her life has sprung four thousand holes. Because one minute it was early morning and she was discovering the new smell and then suddenly she is lying on the living-room floor and the phone is ringing.”

Ted, her partner and the baby’s father, is devoted if distracted, with work on his film and his headaches and sudden memories.

As Lexie’s life is propelled forward, by circumstance and the force of her personality, Elina and Ted seem to drift back in time, not in the time travel notion of things, no, but in Ted’s sudden memories of his childhood, memories long buried and returned to him after the birth of his own child.

Reading the narratives of these two women, as we go back and forth between their stories, it isn’t all that easy to guess at how they intersect at first. But this is not a mystery, there are no prizes, no race to the finish.

O’Farrell has the uncanniest ability to write about motherhood, parenthood, and children.

“Elina moves over the grass, bends and lifts him with one movement. His body feels rigid and his cries broaden into outrage. How could you? he seems to be saying. How could you leave me like that?”

But I do wonder if this book is for everyone. To those who do not know parenthood or do not wish to, these little details about life with a newborn might cause yawns to be stifled, eyes to glaze over. For someone expecting things to happen, for something to be moving along, then they would be disappointed.

It is a sort of gentle read. There is something tremulous and tense about it but these are undercurrents, hints at the disquiet in these lives that we’re reading about.
( )
  RealLifeReading | Jan 19, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0547330790, Hardcover)

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)

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:57 -0400)

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A spell-binding novel of two women connected across fifty years by art, love, betrayals, secrets, and motherhood.

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