Review: The Hand that First Held Mine, Maggie O’Farrell

Family tragedy book song time! (I’m kidding. I have not composed a family tragedy book song. YET.) Maggie O’Farrell’s newest book, The Hand that First Held Mine, focuses on two sets of characters in two different times: Alexandra (Sandra, Lexie), who goes off to London to seek her fortune (in the 1950s), and Elina and Ted, who have just come through a dangerous pregnancy and are struggling to recover from it (in the present day). If you suppose there is no connection between them, I can only assume you have never read a book before.

The Hand that First Held Mine is the third Maggie O’Farrell book I have read in my life, and thus far I have enjoyed all of them tremendously, in spite of the use of present tense for a third-person narrator. My fondness for Maggie O’Farrell should in no way be taken as an endorsement of the use of present tense with a third-person narrator. I still hate it. Maggie O’Farrell succeeds in spite of it, not because of. Writers ye be warned.

As plots go, The Hand that First Held Mine was slightly less interesting to me than the other two. Maggie O’Farrell wins my heart by telling you the end and the beginning, and working backward to the middle. Since this is an exact reflection of the order in which I typically read my books, I am strongly in favor of it. She tells you the events, and then makes you care like crazy by slowly revealing all the emotional reasons that made the events significant. With Esme Lennox and After You’d Gone, I was hell-bent on finding out how the end had come about, and I felt so satisfied with the way O’Farrell paid out the emotional moments that explained why peopleΒ  behaved the way they did. In this one, the revelations didn’t seem to need any explanation, and although I was enjoying it, I wasn’t sure why the book kept going. I thought O’Farrell was carrying on with the book because she was going to try to redeem this one character who was being unfairly demonized (in my opinion), but I read and read all the way to the end, and nope, that character never got redeemed.

All of this sounds terribly uncomplimentary. First I complain about the present tense (I stand by that), and then I complain that the book was pointless. I’m so mean! I promise I enjoyed it, and if you’ve liked Maggie O’Farrell’s past books, I am sure you will enjoy this one too! Only if you’re reading her for the first time, maybe start with The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which is fascinating and suspenseful and has a lovely ambiguous ending. Then when you get to The Hand that First Held Mine, you will have fondness for Maggie O’Farrell stored up, and you will be able to enjoy this book on its merits without needing it to be the best shining example of Maggie O’Farrell’s wonderfulness.

By the way, I really felt this:

She is here, she’s in London: any minute now the technicolor part of her life will commence, she is sure, she is certain — it has to.

A reviewer for the Daily Mail (PS, Britain, I love your print culture) apparently said that Maggie O’Farrell, like Daphne du Maurier before her, stirs up primal fears in the female subconscious. Is that what she does? I do not feel that primal fears have been stirred up in my female subconscious; but it’s subconscious so I guess I wouldn’t know about it if they had. Except I think my dreams would have alerted me. My dreams do not typically allow subconscious fears to escape my notice.

More reviews are here. I know I have been lax about posting links to other reviews, and I would be a better blogger if I were doing that. The thing is that I have a very long commute in which to read books, but very little time with my computer in which to write about them. So my backlog is backed up very far back. Today is Saturday? I’ve just written three reviews and scheduled them throughout the week, and I still have two more to write up. Have to hurry!

34 thoughts on “Review: The Hand that First Held Mine, Maggie O’Farrell

    • I must be very hard of heart. That scene had absolutely no impact on me at all, except that I thought O’Farrell had written it really well from Elina’s point of view.

  1. This book has been on my wish list for ages (waiting for the paperback!). I loved, loved, Esme Lennox and now feel that Maggie O’Farrell can probably do no wrong. Or at least not much wrong, even though I am no fan of third person present tense either. I’m looking forward to reading it eventually.

    • That’s how I feel too! I dislike her choice of tense and viewpoint, but as it’s not my call I guess I should leave that alone and focus on the things about her I do like. :p

  2. I really liked Esme Lennox, but haven’t read anything else by Maggie O’Farrell. Thanks for giving this interesting, if cautionary, review of The Hand that First Held Mine. I like the title.

  3. I really enjoyed this, the only one of Maggie’s books I haven’t been overly keen on is My Lover’s Lover. Great review and it must be a sign of good writing if the use of the present tense, third person didn’t put you off entirely.

    • Is that her first book? I haven’t read it yet but it’s next on my list with her, once it gets in at the library (if ever). I will try to go in with low expectations so I won’t be disappointed.

  4. “If you suppose there is no connection between them, I can only assume you have never read a book before.”

    And this is why I love your reviews, Jenny. I’ve just added The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox to the list of books I need to read.

    • It is in a way, yes — I mean, it’s got dual plot lines, so it’s difficult to say what the beginning and end of each one is. But yes, you start out knowing that Esme Lennox was sent to a mental institution as a girl, and the book’s sort of about finding out why. Very, very good.

  5. I think I own this book – if not it’s on my wish list so I know I want to read it. I am glad to see you liked it then! I will make note of the annoying third person narration and move onward from it πŸ™‚

    • Hahaha, okay. It’s not as jarring as any other third person present tense narration I’ve ever read. Or it’s possible that I just think that because Maggie O’Farrell structures her plots the same way I read.

  6. “If you suppose there is no connection between them, I can only assume you have never read a book before.”

    This made me snort with laughter. Thanks for the recommendation of which book to read first as I haven’t read any of her books but must get around to at some point, as I’ve heard such good things.

    • The good things are true! But I have to say, I haven’t purchased any of O’Farrell’s books yet, except Esme Lennox used for a dollar or two. I’m not positive how well they’ll hold up to a reread. If they reread well, I know I will be sold.

  7. I love that quote! And I really enjoyed Esme Lennox so I know I’ll want to try her other works soon.
    And how cool is it that O’Farrell structures the book to your usual reading method!? πŸ˜€

    • Oh, I’m glad you enjoyed it. That’s been my favorite of O’Farrell’s books so far. I’m going to read her other two soon, and then I guess I will just be bereft until she writes another.

  8. I have read very good things about this book, but your reaction to it makes me think that it shouldn’t be the first O’Farrell that I try to tackle. And although I never read the endings of books before I get there naturally, I do think the idea of starting out at the end is very intriguing to me. I think I am going to try to grab a copy of Esme Lennox and let you know what I think of it.

    • Oh, good. I don’t think The Hand That First Held Mine would make you hate Maggie O’Farrell, but I don’t know that it would make you want to read other books by her immediately. But Esme Lennox is really very very good.

    • You will surely like it! It’s got all these elements that make a book amazing — dual timeframe storylines, women and madness in teh olden days, and dress shops. Yay! (I am sort of making myself want to reread it now.)

  9. ‘If you suppose there is no connection between them, I can only assume you have never read a book before.’ I’m afraid this may make us blogging Enem1ez but I really wish less authors used this device – so many of them are just not good at it and one narrative is often redundant. It’s getting to the point now where I see ‘dual timelines’ and I put books back. Which is why lovely blog posts like this are so important in making me reasses these books. Will add it back to my mental TBR pile again (I think it’s in my parents bookshelves).

    • ….We are now blogging Enem1ez. Not because I can’t be friends with someone who thinks this about dual plotlines, but because up until now I haven’t had any blogging Enem1ez. BEWARE BLOGGING ENEM1EZ.

      (Er, I sort of agree with you about dual plotlines, actually. I love dual plotlines myself and my heart always yearns for books to do them well, but they more often do them badly. Sadness.)

  10. Pingback: Review: The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton « Jenny's Books

  11. Pingback: The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell « JoV's Book Pyramid

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