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The Hand That First Held Mine Kindle Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 300 customer reviews

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Length: 354 pages Word Wise: Enabled Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
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Amazon Review

A Q&A with Maggie O'Farrell

Q: What made you want to write this book?

A: A few years ago, I attended an exhibition of John Deakin's photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Many of them were portraits of people in Soho in the 1950s: artists, writers, actors, musicians. Soho is an area of London that is famous for many things, but I hadn't known that, for a short time after the Second World War, it had been the center of an artistic movement. The bohemian, underground world that thrived there so briefly and was captured so vividly by Deakin fascinated me. I began to conceive a story about a girl, Lexie, who arrives there from a very conventional home and makes a life for herself as a journalist.

Q: There are two stories in the novel, aren't there?

A: The other story is set in the present and is about Elina, a young Finnish painter who has just had her first child. With Elina, I was interested in writing about new motherhood, those very first few weeks with a newborn--the shock and the rawness and the emotion and the exhaustion of it. It's something that's been done a great deal in nonfiction, but I haven't read much about it in fiction. Much of the novel is concerned with people whose lives change in an instant; a decision or a chance meeting or a journey occurs and suddenly your life veers off on a new course. Having your first child is one of those times. As soon as the newborn takes its first breath, life as you've known it is gone and a new existence begins.

Q: Why did you decide to divide the novel into two time frames?

A: I liked the idea of these two women living in the same city, fifty years apart. Lexie and Elina have no inkling of each other's existence, but they hear each other's echoes through time. And, as it turns out, they are linked in other ways--in ways neither of them could ever have expected.

Q: As well as motherhood and the unexpectedness of life, there's a great deal about love in the book as well, isn’t there?

A: Love in many forms powers the book: familial, platonic, and also romantic. Lexie has many different men in her life. There's Felix, the feckless yet famous TV news reporter, and Robert, the rather more serious biographer. But the great love of her life is Innes Kent, the man she follows to London, who takes her under his wing and gives her her first job as a journalist.

Elina's relationship with her boyfriend Ted is challenged by the arrival of their baby. Ted begins to recall things from his own infancy, and these things don’t seem to fit. I was interested in the way having children makes you remember and reassess your own childhood, in micro-detail: things I'd never thought about or remembered before would suddenly rear their head. And this made me wonder what it would be like if the memories that resurfaced were of places and people you didn't recognize, if your own life suddenly seemed strange to you.

Q: Did you have to do a lot of research for the book?

A: The 1950s and 1960s are not that distant in time, and the sixties in particular are very well documented in art, film, photography, and literature. I read history books but also made sure to submerge myself in novels of the period. You get wonderful insights into the way people spoke then; it was quite different from the way English is spoken in London now. The cadences and vocabulary have completely changed. So I read Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Forster. Novels also give you tiny details you didn't even know you needed--how a telephone worked in a house of bed-sitters, for example. Where one bought peacock-blue stockings in 1957.

You have to be careful with research, though. There's a terrible temptation, once you've done all this collecting of interesting details, to shoehorn in as much of it as you can. You can sometimes find yourself writing a sentence along the lines of "She picked up the telephone, which was made of Bakelite, a substance first developed in 1907 by a Belgian chemist..." At which point you have to stop and try to forget everything you know about early plastic manufacture. Most research you have to throw out. But you still need to do it, to give yourself confidence and scaffolding.

Q: London as a city has a strong presence in the book. Was this deliberate?

A: I felt all the way through as if London were the third main character in the novel, along with Lexie and Elina. Most of the novel was written while I was living away from London, so I suppose I was re-creating a city with which I have had a very long relationship (a rather off-and-on one, to be honest).

Q: To what degree does your own life play into your fiction?

A: I don't write autobiographically. Fiction for me is an escape, an alternative existence, so I wouldn't want to re-create my life on the page. There are elements of my life that filter into my books, but they are usually recast and redrawn and reimagined to such a degree as to be unrecognizable to me or anyone else. Lexie and Elina both arrive in London as adults, as I did, and Lexie becomes a journalist, as I did. The scenes about motherhood I couldn't, of course, have written without having been a mother myself. The rest is made up.

Recommended Reading from Maggie O'Farrell

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark: My favorite Spark, I think. A portrait of a women's boarding house in postwar London, including the spinsters, the young dormitory girls, the elocution teacher, the mercenary but beautiful Selina and the Schiaparelli dress they all take turns to wear.
The Severed Head by Iris Murdoch: A devastating account of love and marriage in 1950s London. Murdoch handles her six characters with poise as their lives become ever more entangled.
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns: The book I have given most as a present. It's the mesmerizingly lively story of a young artist who marries against the wishes of her family and her ensuing struggle with poverty, motherhood and her awful, self-centered husband. I make it sound gloomy but it's anything but… 
Dear George and Other Stories by Helen Simpson: I particularly love the story "Heavy Weather" in this collection, which documents a couple on holiday with a toddler and a baby. Nobody but Simpson can write with such heartbreaking accuracy about life with small children.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham: I read and re-read this book while writing The Hand that First Held Mine. It is, quite simply, perfect. How did he do it?
Any Human Heart by William Boyd: The whole of the 20th century is laid out in the diaries of Logan Mountstuart. A spectacular, astonishing novel.

(Photo © Ben Gold)


'O'Farrell has a remarkable ability to convey the texture of human emotion with precision' ( Observer )

'Like Daphne du Maurier...O'Farrell writes books designed to...bring our most primal fears to the surface' ( Daily Mail )

'O'Farrell is a skilful, impassioned writer...engaging and fluent' ( Sunday Telegraph )

'Genuinely unputdownable...evidence of her place as one of Britain's most engaging contemporary novelists' ( Literary Review )

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1527 KB
  • Print Length: 354 pages
  • Publisher: Tinder Press; Export/Airside/Ireland ed edition (29 April 2010)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars 300 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #6,779 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Lovely Treez TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 17 Jun. 2010
Format: Hardcover
Oh no, another favourite author releasing a new title - cue the sickening feelings of anxiety when I settle into the story , wondering if it will meet my expectations but any fears are quickly assuaged as I become immersed in this, Maggie O' Farrell's fifth novel. I devoured it in a few sittings - one of those books you are eager to embrace but loath to leave.

Like it's predecessor, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, there is a cleverly woven dual narrative, one set in the 1950s/1960s in Bohemian London and the contemporary story, again set in London. In the 50s setting, Lexie leaves the bucolic setting of her family home in Devon at the tender age of 21, intent on finding a new life in London. She meets and is seduced by Innes Kent, a seemingly most unsuitable partner and they fall for each other, working together on a magazine in Soho. From an, at times, irritating ingenue Lexie develops into a strong, independent woman working her way up in the male dominated sector of journalism. It's fair to say that life does not treat her that kindly - she becomes a single mother without any family support, her family disowns her when she takes up with Innes.

The modern day story focuses on Elina, a Finnish painter who lives with her partner, Ted. When we first encounter Elina she seems to be suffering some sort of post-traumatic disorder following a particuarly harrowing emergency caesarean birth and to begin with, motherhood does not sit very well with her especially as she seems to have blotted out all memories of giving birth. Later, Ted is the one to suffer flashbacks of suppressed memories and you start to wonder if this couple can withstand the immediate changes brought to the dynamic of their relationship by the arrival of the Baby.
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Format: Hardcover
I have not been affected by a book as much as this one for a long time! I was up until 2am last night because I got so pulled in, to the extent that I just could not go to bed without knowing how O'Farrell masterfully tied all the beautiful threads she had woven into one stunning masterpiece - so beware, your life as you know it will be changed once this book takes over your world!

Elina, Lexie, Ted and Innes are incredibly real, intricately created characters who draw you into their existence, and all of which are endearing and amazingly well-written. O'Farrell's language is beautiful and every sentence is crafted to perfection.

I have to admit, I did not see the twist coming until it was revealed to me... although O'Farrell had my mind working overtime to piece together the subtle hints and clues that she had dotted throughout the novel. When the twist is unveiled, it hits you like a ton of bricks and that's when the intense pull of the story really kicks in. As she switches elegantly between the post-war and modern day chapters, O'Farrell eases the reader seamlessly into each new situation and draws you deeper into the lives of each character and their emotions and surroundings, meanwhile slowly panning out to reveal the bigger picture and how it all interconnects.

Make sure you have your tissues handy - I can't remember the last time I cried at a book but this really resonated with me and will stay with me for a long time, too.

Buy it, immerse yourself in the author's amazing wordcraft and treasure it - I will certainly be going back to read it time and again.
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Format: Hardcover
Having managed to steal a friend's proof copy of The Hand that First Held Mine, I am thrilled to be ahead of the game and report that it didn't disappoint.

Having long been a Maggie O'Farrell fan (I have read everything of hers), this was by far my favourite. A super smart, complex and subtle dual narrative, this book is a beautifully crafted, at times funny, at times sad tale of instant attraction, deep, deep love, brutal loss, the trauma that change can bring as well as a searingly honest examination of the reality of parenthood.

What I loved most about this book is that it managed to combine a raw love story (Lexie and Innes) with an unflinching look at what the arrival of a baby can do to a relationship and how it can strip a mother and father (Ted and Elina) of their individual sense of self, as well as how their baby totally changed their relationship. And at the same time, the real genius, was that the author kept me guessing right until the very end when it came to working about how the two stories were linked. The pace is relentlessly tight - I didn't see it coming at all! I can't recommend it highly enough.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Like others here, I've read all Maggie O'Farrell's books ever since that first, emotions-torn-apart, hook of After You'd Gone. Like others too, the more she writes, the more apprehensive I get when I open the shiny new cover that this one won't live up to expectations (terribly glass half empty, I know!).

But fret not! It only took the first paragraph and I was settling in for a three day read of hours in the evening and sneaky snatched pages during the days. This has all the old Maggie O'Farrell style (mesmerising description which pulls you right into the people and their environment, superb characterisation and a tangled plot which is so involved yet easy to follow) but in a completely different setting (two lives: present day and fifty years earlier). You know the plots will come together and I liked the mix of half guessing certain outcomes and being way off with others.

Typically Maggie O'Farrell there's amusement and heartache but without giving anything away, this book will suck you into Ted and Lexie's lives and resistance will be futile.
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