About a year ago, I read a great review of Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine, and I purchased a copy of the book. I made it part of my reading list for Cathy’s Reading Ireland event, and when it became clear on Thursday that we would have yet another snow day, I started reading. I was done by Saturday morning. What a wonderful book!
The book is set up as a dual narrative. In the mid 1950s, 21-year-old Lexie Sinclair meets magazine publisher Innes Kent, and without hesitating, she follows him to London. They live in Soho, amid artists and writers, and Lexie relishes her new life. The fact that Innes is married doesn’t bother them much; they are deeply in love. Lexie starts to work for Innes’ magazine and turns herself into an accomplished writer. She becomes the first female staff writer at a daily newspaper and starts to travel for work. Then she becomes pregnant, and even though it is now the 60s, an unmarried woman with a child and a job is still a rarity. But Lexie is unperturbed. I loved her strength, how she would let nothing get in her way.
In present-day London, Elina and Ted struggle to adjust to life with a newborn. The sudden endless needs of an infant and the lack of sleep are taking a toll on the new parents. The descriptions of their first weeks home with their newborn son are beautiful without idolizing the situation. The new parents are full of wonder, but they are also anxious and sometimes overwhelmed. Elina, who lost a lot of blood during childbirth, keeps having blackouts, and Ted keeps having fleeting memories of people and places that don’t fit into his family’s stories. I was wondering how it would all fit together.
O’Farrell skillfully sets up the characters and effortlessly moves back and forth between the two narratives. I was quickly pulled into the book, happily relishing the beautiful language, and then this:
“She has no idea that she will die young, that she does not have as much time as she thinks.”
This one sentence, early on, made me sit up and take notice. It put me on alert, and the continuing jumps in the narrative keep up the suspense. There are also seemingly unconnected, short interludes that remind the reader how things will change: the house that has a new owner, the bar that gets remodeled, the spare key that is still in its hiding place but that won’t fit into the new lock anymore.
I kept trying to guess how the two stories might be connected, but the book was so much better than anything I imagined. There is love and heartbreak, and also a little evil. I was so desperate to find out how it was going to end that I took the book to the supermarket with me and consequently sat in my car crying in front of the A&P. I didn’t mind one bit; it was that good!
“She knew, though, that she would not see him again. She would not be helping him cut up his dinner tonight. She would not be folding his kite or airing his damp clothes or running him a bath at bedtime or taking his pajamas out from under the pillow. She would not be rescuing his cat from the floor in the middle of the night. She would not be able to wait for him at the gate at the end of his first day at school. Or guide his hand as he learnt to shape the letters of his name, the name she’d given him. […] She would not be there when someone first broke his heart or when he first drove a car or when he went alone out into the world or when he saw, for the first time, what he would do, how he would live and with whom and where. She would not be there to knock the sand out of his shoes when he came off the beach. She would not see him again.”