Book Nook: Review of "The Hand That First Held Mine" by Maggie O'Farrell

A haunting story of family, loss, and hope. Your local librarian reviews this excellently written historical fiction by Maggie O'Farrell.

I love reading. I love books. Specifically, I love when authors can create a whole world for readers to inhabit in just a few words. It is a very remarkable writer that can draw you into a world with just a sentence. It is even more remarkable for someone to do it in one word. The Hand that First Held Mine is one of these. "Listen." With that one word O'Farrell enlists you as an accomplice in her tale of love, loss, and beginnings. Listen, and you can't but help to. 

The two lives of Elina and Lexie seem at first nothing alike. Lexie is a young woman waiting for her life to take off, whereas Elina is initially alone, haunted, and unsure. But as the story unfolds, Lexie and Elina end up on a crash course that will affect the lives of Elina, her boyfriend, and their newborn baby. The story is told alternatingly from the perspectives of both Elina, Ted, and Lexie. I know that this is a stylistic choice to draw out the drama of the narrative, but it works because of how O'Farrell created her characters. Because Lexie is so sure of herself we need to have her narrative broken up or she'd have us racing to the finish without absorbing the important things, and Elina needs to slow down because she's re-identifying herself and her place in the world. Together their stories compliment each other and lead up to a heart wrenching but hopeful ending.

Listen. The reader needs to listen to the story that O'Farrell is slowly unraveling before you. The clues are all there in the text, but you have to listen to her language to fully grasp the ordinary/extraordinariness of her characters' daily lives. I particularly liked how the narrator in the story occasionally steps back from the tale to show you how time has changed the places that have been described. Particularly with Elsewhere, her little vignettes of present day bring a bit of humanity to the settings. Buildings get old, the people who lived there fade away to be replaced by new lives, new schedules, yet the building becomes a layered piece of art for those who have seen it change. O'Farrell has a special touch at immersing her readers into her story, but keeping them a hairsbreadth away from interfering with her characters. There is a recurring motif of watching life happen through a window, and how removed the watcher is from the activities outside. That is exactly how I felt when reading this book, removed and alittle bit astounded that I could be watching these very private moments happen in front my eyes.

If you are a fan of historical fiction, bittersweet love stories, or just love really remarkable settings, then this book should be added to your To Read pile immediately. It is a carefully crafted masterpiece, as much a piece of art as the artwork the author describes in her book.

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