The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell

I came across this novel 8 months pregnant and milling around Waterstones looking for a book to say something about where I was in my life. About to become a mother at 39, simultaneously excited about the new adventure and racked with anxiety about the ‘me’ I’d taken for granted all these years and worried I might lose in the oncoming onslaught of nappies, feeds and sleepless nights. Apart from the striking John Deakin portrait Girl in Cafe on the cover that reminded me of my best friend, a quick scan of the back blurb confirmed this book might have something for me. The character of Elina was the hook. Described as no longer recognizing her life after the arrival of their first child and, an artist, she wonders if she’ll ever paint again, I felt I might learn something from her about my own, similar anxieties. So it was with a somewhat prejudiced and self interested mind that I came to this book and although I enjoyed reading O’Farrell’s prose immensely and was drawn into the emotional journeys of all the characters, the novel as whole left me dissatisfied. The crosscutting between the lives of Lexie and Innes [London 1950’s] and Elina and Ted [London present] was well plotted and didn’t force contrived parallels of experience and all four characters stood on their own as strong, complex and interesting individuals getting along with their particular life circumstances. As a reader you wonder where there stories will intersect and the way they finally do is simultaneously expected and unexpected. But the upshot of the reveal takes the novel’s narrative trajectory away from what have been the two emotional heartbeats up until then [Elina and Lexie] and left me, particularly in the case of Elina’s story, feeling she’d been abandoned by the author.  As a reader i also felt somewhat abandoned. I wanted to know more about Elina and her transition to motherhood and it’s seems the author had run out of things to say about that or just didn’t know how to resolve Elina or her story. The somewhat truncated and unresolved question of Elina’s particular existential predicament may also be read as fully intended by the author. Becoming a mother just happens. Whatever a particular woman’s questions and doubts and fears and anxieties about the loss of an identity she’d taken for granted up until now they can dissolve and/or fall into place once the baby arrives and a time of transition is allowed to take place. This maybe so but I still find it unsatisfying, a cop out even, never the less the novel’s theme of motherhood and women searching/dealing with issues of identity is reflected in a number of other narrative prisms and offers much that is rich, emotional satisfying and sensitive. I would recommend this read.


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