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 people 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!