Friday, April 30, 2010


By Maggie O’Farrell

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25

352 pages


In “The Hand That First Held Mine,” Maggie O’Farrell’s subject is situation rather than character. The situations she writes about are the life-changing experience of becoming a mother and the effect of emotional trauma on memory. She also writes about living in London, both today and as it was in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, when it was poised to become “swinging London” and 21-year old Lexie Sinclair had just arrived to try her luck there.

Bright, self-confident Lexie doesn’t know much except that she has to get away from her fuddy-duddy family. Luckily for her, she meets Innes Kent, an art critic and magazine editor, and almost immediately, he becomes Lexie’s lover. He educates her eye and trains her to write. They work in Soho, sharing their lives with other escapees from the conventional world while producing an innovative magazine. And then Innes dies. Lexie has nothing - no job, no home, just a few paintings and her new writing skills.

In time, she establishes herself as an art critic. She has an on-off relationship with a TV reporter, and eventually a child, Theo, who becomes the new center of her life. As Lexie’s life progresses through the ‘60s and ‘70s, alternating chapters switch attention to the modern-day story of painter Elina Vilkuna, who has just arrived home from the hospital with her baby, born after three days’ labor, a Caesarean and a hemorrhage. She has lost so much blood that she is scarcely functioning and cannot even really remember giving birth.

Ted, the baby’s father, is so shaken by Elina’s near death in the delivery room that he can’t bear to think about it. As the weeks pass and Elina slowly recovers, he suffers visual distortions and sudden mental flashes of unknown people. They seem to be lost childhood memories, and they sidetrack him so much that Elina’s worries about him compound with the endless work of the baby to overwhelm her with anxiety.

As attention switches from Lexie to Elina and back again, readers look for links. Here are two young women, both involved in the art world, both with babies, both living in London. They are scarcely unique, and though 35 years separates the births of their sons, Ms. O’Farrell suggests more about their similarities than their differences.

At first, this makes the twinning of their stories a bit mysterious, but eventually, a carefully controlled series of hints and accidents suggests what the connection might be. Those accidents constitute the plot. The work done by “The Hand That First Held Mine” is to discover what happens when it snares Lexie and Elina in its toils. Following their progress is often exciting. The early chapters describing Lexie’s first years in London capture the seedy glamour of Soho in the ‘60s and suggest how thrilling it must have been for a clever young woman to have found the world opening up for her there.

Ms. O’Farrell’s talent for observations are displayed even more vividly in her descriptions of Elina’s first days of motherhood when, exhausted by blood loss and often disoriented, she struggles with the baby’s unpredictable bouts of crying and his erratic feeding while coping with never-ending piles of laundry.

Many contemporary female novelists have tackled this terrain, but few have reported back in such depth. Ms. O’Farrell shows both the seemingly unending tiredness and also the luxurious sensuality of the early weeks of motherhood. And no one has described newborns better. We see the baby’s arm appearing above the edge of the crib as if he’s performing tai chi. We peek at him asleep, “his mouth shut in a firm pout as if tackling this sleeping business with all the seriousness and concentration it deserves.”

When Elina shakes his rattle, we laugh at its instant effect: “His limbs stiffen; his eyes spring wide, his lips part in a perfect O. It is as if he had been studying a manual on how to be a human being with particular attention to the chapter, ‘Demonstrating Surprise.’ ”

The strength of such scenes and the intriguing switches between Lexie’s and Elina’s stories bowl readers along. Ted’s strange bouts of memory are intriguing, too. But because the only function of many other personages in the novel is to perform tasks required by the plot, their characterization relies on stereotypes.

In Lexie’s story, Daphne and Laurence do a good job of dramatizing the denizens of Soho in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but Felix plays only a stock role as the frivolous but successful TV reporter of the ‘70s. More significantly, Innes Kent is almost a fantasy figure, and while we are told that he and Lexie are madly in love, we don’t really see it. Given what we know of them, it doesn’t seem likely, but still, love there must be because at this early stage of the novel, the story hinges on it.

In such ways, Lexie, Innes, Elina, Ted and the other characters bear the burden of the plot rather than the responsibility for its evolution and development. This effect is typical of mystery novels, and it helps make “The Hand That First Held Mine” compelling reading. Yet Maggie O’Farrell’s sharpness of perception, her talent for the telling detail and the ability to evoke both places and states of mind show that she could set her characters free to explore the world and create their own destinies. This suggests that it will be worth watching for her future work - this is her fifth book.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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