The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

Let your eyes drop to my score for Maggie O’Farrell’s Costa Book Award-winning-novel, The Hand That First Held Mine, and freak out. Because nearly everyone I know loved it. And when I finished both of her completely immersive historical novels earlier this year (here and here), I expected I would also love it. But I didn’t and I’ll (very briefly) tell you why.

I’m a bit over the switching back-and-forth-between-present-and-past-to-tell-two-stories-in-parallel structure. You absolutely know from the outset that the two stories will intersect and I find myself joining the dots as I read. It’s an approach used by lots of authors (Kate Morton springs to mind, and it’s because of this that I’ve stopped reading her books). The problem with this approach is that it disrupts tension – if the author has created tension and then switches time period, it’s lost. Equally annoying, is the reliance on switching to create continual cliff-hangers.

There were elements I enjoyed well enough – Lexie’s story, set in London in the 1950s, with a focus on journalism and publishing appealed more than Elina’s, whose story is set in the present. Much of what was described for Elina seemed superfluous, however, the two characters overlap in their experience as new mothers. Ultimately, O’Farrell’s observations about motherhood were not enough to sustain my interest. I will read more by her in the future but I am likely to be more choosy.


Lexie took a sip of her gin and felt its heated path sink down through her body.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (July 16): Belfast 13°-17° and Melbourne 5°-15°.

13 responses

  1. I’m with the majority on this one. She had me engrossed in both timelines throughout. I read it sometime last year and scenes still pop into my head at times. Elina’s story is even more poignant after reading I Am, I Am, I Am, O’Farrell’s personal story.

    • I Am is on my TBR list and I will absolutely read it (I seek out books with a grief theme) but I think I’ll give it a while before I pick it up (three O’Farrells in five months is enough!).

  2. I read After You’d Gone way back when and didn’t like it, so I’ve avoided MoF for a long time. I relented enough to buy Hamnet and The Marriage Portrait, but despite the glowing reviews, I haven’t read them yet.

  3. Every O’Farrell I have read has disappointed me. I’ve given her three goes, but no more. I do have her memoir in my TBR so I will read that at some point…

  4. I’ve only read Hamnet and was underwhelmed by it. On the strength of that, I’ve filed O’Farrell away with Madeline Miller as someone who writes well but leaves me cold.

  5. I’ve read ALL of O’Farrell’s books, and you need to know that Hamnet was a real turning point for her. Nothing she wrote before that was anything like those. It was as if she became a new type of writer. In fact, it might have been her memoir that was the real turning point. Like she was only scratching the surface with her earlier books, and then… something started to bleed and the flow hasn’t been stemmed yet. I would say that her Esme Lennox was the best of her pre-memoir books, and it is now my third favorite after Hamnet and Marriage Portrait. That just means that people who hated Hamnet and Marriage Portrait may love her earlier books.

  6. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  7. It is funny how some books are on the total opposite side of love or hate. This was the first book by O’Farrell I read and I loved it. Everything looks so normal and turns out to be nothing like it. I have read other books by her, and enjoy her writing. Loved Hamnet and will soon read The Marriage Portrait.

  8. I loved O’Farrell’s 2 most recent novels but haven’t read anything else from her. I’m also really over the dual timeline books but I’m willing to give this one a chance to see how I might like it!

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