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 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!

Review: After You’d Gone, Maggie O’Farrell

After You’d Gone begins at the end: our protagonist Alice sees something nasty in the woodshed (as it were; it’s not really a woodshed) and shortly thereafter gets hit by a car (possibly on purpose) and lapses into a coma.  The rest of the book goes circling and swooping around what happened and why and what it meant to Alice, exploring her past and her mother’s and her grandmother’s, shifting points of view and tenses every few pages.  I know I complained recently about rapidly-shifting narrative focus.  It’s disorienting here too, and there’s no reason to be changing tenses every two seconds, but I forgive Maggie O’Farrell because she makes me feel accepted and understood.

The end, and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough, happens first.

Not just that, but when I would begin to have a complaint about the way the plot was going, Maggie O’Farrell had already anticipated it and veered away from the danger zone.  LIKE SHE WAS INSIDE MY HEAD.  I read the end and thought, Well, that nasty thing in the woodshed is a bit anticlimactic and predictable, if the whole book’s building up to that revelation it’s going to be rather lame.  But then the something nasty got revealed for the first time midway through the book and left me wondering what further revelations could be forthcoming.  Each time I felt that a certain incident implied that the plot was going to move in an unsatisfactory direction, it swiftly proved otherwise.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: I like to have the action of a book spoiled for me, but not the emotional moments, not the psychological motives that underpin the whole thing.  I want to know that (I’m about to spoil Jane Eyre, and I’m warning you because Ana is always heaping fury upon blurb-writers who assume everyone knows the end to all the Classics) Jane and Mr. Rochester end up together, but I don’t want to know what leads Jane to ditch St. John and head back to Thornfield.  To put it another way, I like to know the what and slowly find out the why, rather than getting all the whys before reaching the what. It is like having a black-and-white outline to start with, and slowly coloring it in with all different colors until, ta-da!, you have an entire picture.

After You’d Gone is just like that.  She tells us the what from the beginning: Alice sees something bad, and steps in front of a car, and ends up in a coma.  Events happen out of chronological order.  They happen in a complicated, twisty, emotional order.  You have to be giving the book your reasonably undivided attention, but as long as you do that, it’s very satisfying.  Especially to me, skipper-arounder-in-books.

Other reviews:

Leafing Through Life

That’s it, only two?  Surely there are more.  Tell me if I missed yours!

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie O’Farrell

Let us begin with two girls at a dance.

They are at the edge of the room.  One sits on a chair, opening and shutting a dance-card with gloved fingers.  The other stands beside her, watching the dance unfold: the circling couples, the clasped hands, the drumming shoes, the whirling skirts, the bounce of the floor.  It is the last hour of the year and the windows behind them are blank with night.  The seated girl is dressed in something pale, Esme forgets what, the other in a dark red frock that doesn’t suit her.  She has lost her gloves.  It begins here.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is all about a woman called Iris who owns a vintage clothing store and represses feelings for her step-brother, who inherits a crazy old great-aunt she never knew she had when the mental health institution where she has been housed for sixty years closes down.  The story is told from Iris’s point of view, and Esme’s memories of her life before, and the disordered memories of Esme’s sister Kitty (Iris’s grandmother), who now suffers from Alzheimer’s.

This book was really good.  Really, really good.  I liked it so much.  I’ve read reviews that said that Iris’s part of the story wasn’t fleshed out enough, but I thought it worked really well actually – the juxtaposition between Esme, who is institutionalized for being inconveniently unwilling to adhere to the standards required of a woman of her time and class; and Iris, who, like Esme, doesn’t want the marriage thing but lives in a time when she can be a professional woman and that’s what she chooses.

As the book goes on, it carefully, carefully starts to explain why Esme’s family had her committed to a mental institution, and why her sister Kitty pretended to her family all her life that she was an only child.  It’s not a very nice story, but it’s a good story.

Good partly, of course, because it’s true – when Iris is researching to find out why Esme was committed in the first place, she finds records of women and girls who were put in mental institutions by their families for things like not wanting to have their hair cut, taking long walks, refusing marriage.  That happened.  It’s upsetting, and it doesn’t pull any punches – if you were in a place with people who were crazy, and everyone was constantly telling you that you were crazy, you’d have a hard time hanging onto your sanity.

So, read it!  It was really good!  The end was ambiguous!  Fantastic title!