The Hand that First Held Mine

This is the title of a novel by Maggie O’Farrell. We read it for our book group and discussed it a week ago. I highly recommend it for any of you out there running book groups. The story centres around two couples, Lexie and Innes in the 1950s and Elina and Ted in the 1990s but it’s not just an exploration of love and relationships, it looks quite deeply as the whole subject of parenthood.
Elina and Ted have a baby and I really ‘enjoyed’ the author’s description of the ‘fog’ of those early days as a parent, even though some of it was so vivid it was terrifying! While Elina bonds deeply with the child, Ted is deeply disturbed by the birth and finds that fatherhood raises really deep questions for him about his own childhood. Some of my group members found Elina and Ted’s story not as engaging because for a long time they fail to connect with one another but I think this is perhaps a very realistic situation for couples who drift unintentionally into parenthood.
Lexie and Innes live in Soho in the 1950s and an entire era is brilliantly evoked.
I won’t tell you very much more of the plot apart from the fact that it’s very clever and has something to do with how we all live in the ghost lives of those who have preceeded us. The book’s themes are memory (particularly how what we choose to forget continues to affect us deeply) and parenthood (how who we are is largely formed before we are three). It is a book that made me cry (there was a whole page about loss that I found too distressing to even read) and laugh. It’s also beautifully written. There are some brilliantly drawn characters, part of the writer’s skill is that you loathe one particular character but actually come to pity her.
I rarely read a book twice but I’ve started this one over and expect to enjoy it even more the second time.
It prompted a great discussion about identity, what or who makes us who we are and how much we are in control.

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