Author: Maggie O'Farrell
Genre: Literary fiction, historical fiction, contemporary fiction
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
Source: Personal copy
Read for: Fun
The Hand that First Held Mine is the twin narrative of Lexie, a girl who just can't please her family and thus escapes to a bohemian life of art, journalism, and true love, and Elina, a brand new mother who struggles through the trials and trauma of taking care of a new baby after an especially traumatic labor and emergency C-section. Their stories intersect in unexpected ways, unveiling a tragic truth.
For obvious reasons, The Hand that First Held Mine was a very emotional read for me. On the brink of motherhood myself, I have often complained about the way people just continually tell me, "It is so hard, you won't even know what hit you" and then walk away, leaving me freaked out but not sure what to do about it. The Hand that First Held Mine was no-holds-barred about exactly why it is hard to have a baby. First of all, Elina had just about the worst labor and delivery experience imaginable, complete with three days of labor and a dramatic post-partum hemorrhage that left her so ill she couldn't even remember having the baby for several days. To follow that, Maggie O'Farrell uses her amazing, descriptive writing to delineate in exact detail the sights, emotions, and smells of new motherhood. We get plenty of descriptions of walking around shirtless trying to get the baby to eat, of blow-outs all over the mother-in-law's white bathroom, of sleepless nights. However, all of these descriptions were comforting to me, rather than disturbing, and here is why: I got a crystal clear description of what was happening, in all its gory detail -- and I also got Maggie O'Farrell's amazing, descriptive writing telling me about how it feels to fall in love with your baby. Here's a passage that sums it all up perfectly -- a little long, but that is how this review is going to be, because I reacted to this book:
Should she mention the nights spent awake, the number of times she must wash her hands in a day, the endless drying and folding of tiny clothes, the packing and unpacking of bags containing clothes, nappies, wipes, the scar across her abdomen, crooked and leering, the utter loneliness of it all, the hours she spends kneeling on the floor, a rattle or a bell or a fabric block in her hands, that she sometimes gets the urge to stop older women in the street and say, how did you do it, how did you live through it? Or she could mention that she had been unprepared for this fierce spring in her, this feeling that isn’t covered by the word ‘love’, which is far too small a word for it, that sometimes she thinks she might faint with the urgency of her feeling for him, that sometimes she desperately misses him even when he is right there, that it’s like a form of madness, of possession, that often she has to creep into the room when he has fallen asleep just to look at him, to check, to whisper to him. But instead, she says ‘Fine. Good, thanks.’Just reading over that again, I started crying. Pregnancy hormones? Yes, maybe. There's also another aspect of this book that I reacted strongly to, although I don't want to spoil anything. Highlight the following if you are just dying of curiosity. Elina's boyfriend, the father of her child, Ted, loses his mother, and the realization of that is heartbreaking and traumatic to him. My husband lost his mother when he was a teenager, and reading through those emotions for the character made my husband's personal tragedy so painful and close for me. Like I said, this book emotionally wrecked me on so many levels. End of spoiler.
Now that I've given you all this information about my personal, biased reaction to this book, let me give you some objective review material. I mentioned in brief the beauty of Maggie O'Farrell's writing. This above all stands out to me in her books. She describes emotions and events with a fragile, tenuous beauty. She draws out these tense, delicate situations and weaves them like a spider's web, and then shakes the branches from which they are suspended, and we are left gasping as we hope they don't fall to the ground. For me, reading this kind of writing makes any slowness in the plot forgivable, because I just want to keep eating up those words. I've read one other book by O'Farrell (pre-blog), The Disappearing Act of Esme Lennox, and now with this second excellent experience, I am adding O'Farrell's entire back-list to my to-be-read list.
I also love her characters. From my limited experience of reading two books by Maggie O'Farrell, I think it is safe to say that she explores feminist themes in her work. This results in very strong female characters that challenge the expectations of their time periods. In The Hand that First Held Mine, the two narratives focus on a girl in the 50's and a woman living in modern times, and both manage to challenge society's expectations of them, although they are living on completely different levels. At the same time, the brand of feminism they embrace is not caustic or bossy. O'Farrell isn't trying to tell women how to live their lives -- she is simply illustrating that they should be free to live their lives in the way that is most fulfilling to them.
While I will say that I felt most invested in Elina's side of the narrative, it was Lexie's side that resulted in the most underlined passages, the most tears. So even though at times I felt impatient and that the part of the plot that focused on Lexie was moving slowly, in the end it was very rewarding and emotional, and absolutely necessary to the climax, although it takes several pages to establish that.
The Hand that First Held Mine is a book that will stay with me for a long time. I read the book at a time in my life when it had the most ability to impact me emotionally, but I think even if I had read the book at a different time it would still have moved me. It has convinced me that I need to read Maggie O'Farrell's entire backlist. The Hand that First Held Mine is a rare gem that needs more attention in the literary world.
Warnings: Language, a few non-graphic scenes of sensuality