The Hand That First Held Mine is Maggie O’Farrell’s fifth book, and winner of The Costa Novel Award. It tells the parallel stories of Lexie Sinclair a young woman in post-war England, and Elina and Ted, new parents struggling to get to grips with their new roles in our modern world.
Lexie, a fiery young woman who has been expelled from university for walking through a men only door and refusing to apologise, is worried that her life will never start until she meets the debonair Innes Kent who whisks her away to London and a new life as a journalist. Elina, a new mother and one time artist, cannot remember the traumatic birth of her son and wonders if she will ever paint again. As well as such creative worries, her boyfriend Ted seems to be struggling to adapt to his new role as father and is becoming increasingly distant.
Having read After You’d Gone and loved it, and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and quite liked it, I have to say that I was quite disappointed by The Hand That First Held Mine. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an enjoyable enough read, Maggie O’Farrell’s prose is engaging and most of the characters are interesting or compelling but in terms of actually being a good book, the novel lacks the spark of her former work and her plotting is fundamentally flawed to the extent that I am amazed that it was published with such gaping plot holes.
O’Farrell once again has focused on different characters, living at different times, only to bring the story together at the end- to the point where this ending is silly. This formulaic writing habit has become less a style and is verging on a bad habit, as Lexie’s story is the only one with any spark or interest, and the modern section of the novel lacks any focus. Which character are we meant to be observing? Elina or Ted? They are both completely overshadowed by the baby, and then by Simmy and Ted’s mother, both of whom are caricatures of the eccentric English gentleman and the wicked-lady-who-wants-to-snatch-your-baby.
Spoilers ahead, if you haven’t read the book.
What really got me though, I mean really annoyed me and made the difference between the book being an enjoyable enough read and a shocking mishmash of errors was the idea that Ted, a man in his thirties, had been tricked into believing that the woman who brought him up was his mother. I’m sorry, but how would a thirty year old man born in the 20th century, especially the latter half, manage to get through life without seeing his birth certificate? Has he never had a bank account, job, passport or driving license? It was laughable that this was the entire secret around which the novel revolved. If you hadn’t guessed from the many clumsy hints throughout that this was going to be what happened, I would imagine it was meant to be a big reveal but what a joke! This is the sort of plot that might have worked in the Dickensian era, but just can’t be transposed to modern times.
I really like Maggie O’Farrell, and while this book is well written, I can’t ignore the fact that her publishers have let the silliest plot line I’ve ever read pass to press.