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The Hand That First Held Mine (edition 2011)

by Maggie O'Farrell

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Title:The Hand That First Held Mine
Authors:Maggie O'Farrell
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The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell

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Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
I loved this. I hadn't read Maggie O'Farrell before, and I don't normally read stuff that is overtly about motherhood/parenting or romance, but this was so true to life on the unavoidable changes that happen in your life when you have children, and Lexie's description of her small son as her magnetic north, always exerting a pull on her, really struck a chord. I liked the intertwining stories, and the wait to find out how they connected, and the characters have stayed with me. ( )
2 vote cjeskriett | Feb 6, 2014 |
The book takes place in two time periods: the late '50s and early '60s, and in the late '90s (or thereabouts - there are cell phones). Our protagonist in the '50s-'60s is Alexandra - Lexie - Sinclair, who escapes a stifling home life and runs away to London. She meets up with Innes Kent, who convinces her to come work for his magazine, Elsewhere, and eventually to live with him. They are deeply in love, but unfortunately, Innes' wife Gloria - from whom he is separated - is furious with him for taking up with Lexie, and she turns her daughter Margot against Innes and Lexie also. When Innes dies, Gloria turns Lexie out of his flat.

Closer to the present day, film editor Ted and his artist girlfriend Elina have just been through the harrowing birth of their child, during which Elina nearly died. The trauma was so severe that initially, Elina does not remember the ordeal, but it comes back to her. Ted, however, has memory problems that date back to the early years of his childhood - he remembers nothing. But the presence of the baby in the house seems to be jogging pieces of his memory, presenting questions he can't answer.

I listened to this as an audiobook (read by Anne Flosnik, who also read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox), and when she got to the line "Call me Margot" I actually said "Oh my God" out loud in the car. I wanted to re-read the book even before I'd finished it the first time, to see how early the clues started to appear.

As ever, O'Farrell's writing is beautiful, and her plotting is quietly astounding. The Hand That First Held Mine is on par with The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and Instructions for a Heatwave. I'm so glad I discovered O'Farrell this year; she has quickly become a favorite author. ( )
  JennyArch | Dec 5, 2013 |
Beautifully written with a storyline that builds at a perfect pace.
Exceeded my expectations. ( )
  mabroms | Sep 3, 2013 |
In my top 20, not an easy position to achieve when you have read as many books as I have. ( )
  IanMPindar | May 16, 2013 |
I loved this book. Loved. it. When I was pregnant with Leo, and then, after I gave birth, I searched for books that would reflect the strange, often overwhelming experience I was having as a new mother. O'Farrell's novel explores both the shaky first months of taking care of a newborn, as well as the immensely satisfying and quirky aspects of life with a toddler. She captures the love and fear, the drudgery and the boredom, the comical and the disastrous.
Themes of motherhood are played out over the backdrop of bohemian post war London and modern day London in two different narratives that intersect by the story's end. Two mothers, both fiercely independent and artistically minded are a pure delight to read about.
A great read. ( )
1 vote KristySP | Apr 21, 2013 |
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And we forget because we must. - Matthew Arnold
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Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves.
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:30:15 -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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