When I came across Maggie O’Farrell’s first novel, After You’d Gone, last year, I was blown away. I thought it was one of the best novels I’d read in a long time and instantly recommended it to several friends. So, as an immediate O’Farrell fan, I was very excited to read her newest book, The Hand That First Held Mine, and was pleased to discover it didn’t disappoint. The Hand That First Held Mine doesn’t have the raw qualities and shock that made me appreciate After You’d Gone so much, but it has the same lyrical prose, graceful composition, and hidden twists that seem characteristic of O’Farrell’s writing style. You can bet that after reading two such works, I’m going to check out everything else O’Farrell’s written too.
The Hand That First Held Mine moves between two parallel trajectories: the story of Lexie, an ambitious, unformed woman in the 1950s; and that of Elina and Ted, new, uncertain parents in the present. Lexie’s presence feels real to her, but the narrator frequently reminds us that it’s temporary, and already past. Meanwhile, as Elina’s temporary amnesia after the difficult birth of her and Ted’s child fades away, Ted discovers gaping holes in his own memory. Along the way, subtle patterns, parallels, and comparisons between the characters’ lives emerge, tying the two stories together in unique and fateful ways.
Part of the pleasure in reading this book is coming across these twists and turns for yourself–discovering connections and disappointments along with the characters–and I don’t want to give them away. Instead, I want to reiterate the pleasure that comes from reading such an accomplished piece of fiction.
Verdict: this is an exquisite read, both in terms of the way O’Farrell manipulates language and sets up the novel’s structure, and it has plenty of heartbreaking moments you don’t see coming. While you’re at it, check out After You’d Gone, too–it’s superb.
Rachel, who has a Ph.D. in English, is a freelance writer/editor and a voracious reader. You can talk to her about books at twitter.com/writehandmann.
This book was provided free of any obligation by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.