Thursday, 19 August 2010

Book Review - The Hand That First Held Mine (by Maggie O'Farrell)

I'm going to get straight to the point here and announce that I was pretty underwhelmed by The Hand That First Held Mine. After rave reviews by members of my book club of O'Farrell's earlier novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, I was really excited to sink my teeth into the work of a new author. This excitement soon dwindled as it took me six weeks to struggle through the books uninspiring 341 pages.

The book is at once the story of young Lexie Sinclair and her short but bright life in 1950s Soho with the flamboyant Innes Kent, and the story of present day couple, Elina and Ted, grappling with the birth of their first child. Right from the beginning we know that somehow these two stories are intertwined. We flit and float between these four characters and their support cast as O'Farrell gradually feeds us the clues that link these two stories together, until the bombshell is inevitably dropped at the end.

The story itself is relatively fluid, but I could sense the author working at trying to deceive us. For example, we never know what really happened to Elina when giving birth and I wonder whether the author only includes her post-partum depression to throw us off the scent. As a result, there are a few loose ends by the books conclusion.

But it's the blend of story and character that really made this book a chore for me. From the very beginning of the novel I felt detached from the characters, as if I was gazing on them from afar, with little concern or care. Maybe this was the author's intention as Lexie, Innes, Elina and Ted all become detached from the world and their loved ones in some way or another throughout the course of the book. But, if it was the author's intention, it certainly didn't endear me to them or the story. This detachment juxtaposed with the connections the book is trying to make between characters spread 50 years apart is a contradiction that left me feeling a little confused.

The predominant theme of the book is motherhood and it's this that links the stories of Elina and Lexie. O'Farrell uses the time settings to identify both the similarities and differences of motherhood over the generations. I read one review that described the book as an ode to motherhood and I'd have to agree. The one strength of the book is O'Farrells understanding of a mother's love in all it's guises and permutations. However, this doesn't save the book for me. The book explores motherhood among other common themes including love, betrayal, revenge and loss, but there's nothing new here, not even in the delivery. (2 Stars)

If you are a fan of Maggie O'Farrell's work and want to give The Hand That First Held Mine a try for yourself, you can purchase a secondhand copy from our website by clicking here - Buy Now!!