Summary (from the back cover):
Lexie Sinclair is waiting for her life to begin. When Innes Kent turns up on her doorstep, she realises she can wait no longer, and leaves for London. There, at the heart of the 1950s Soho art scene, Lexie carves out a new life for herself, with Innes by her side.
In the present day, Elina and Ted are reeling from the birth of their first child. As Elina, a painter, struggles with the demands of motherhood, Ted is disturbed by memories of his own childhood that don't tally with his parents' version of events.
As Ted searches for answers, so an extraordinary portrait of two women is revealed: separated by fifty years, Lexie and Elina are connected in ways that neither of them could ever have expected.
In typical Maggie O'Farrell fashion, this novel deals with two storylines: that of Lexie Sinclair in 1950s London and that of Ted and Elina in modern day London. Both stories are like superimposed images that converge near the ending for a big reveal. When I read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox earlier this year, I only had a vague idea of what was coming. This time, however, I was fully aware of the connection between Elina and Lexie from early on, and that didn't made the novel less interesting or less tense. I was glued to the pages from the start - I wanted to go on reading, while at the same time I wanted to stop to spare the characters.
There wasn't anything from this novel I didn't like, but my favorite aspect were characters, especially Lexie and Elina. Both women have made unexpected life choices and are sticking to them, both of them are tied to art and motherhood. Lexie is an intelligent women hindered by the expected women roles of the time, until she meets Innes Kent, who ends up being her lover and her mentor. Interestingly, Lexie always keeps her independence in every one of her relationships. When someone whants to destroy that very kernel of freedom, she stands her ground and finds the way to overcome the problem, without ever sounding anachronistic. Elina has it easier in some ways and some of her choices are the perfect opposite of Lexie's - but Maggie O'Farrell shows us through her character that there are still some pressures exclusively placed upon women and how that is unfair to both women and men. Both Lexie's and Elina's experiences in motherhood function as snapshots of the views of society in two different eras. Basically, the book is feminist without sounding preachy, and I also loved it for that. The Hand that First Held Mine also explores other relationships besides that of mother and children: father-children, lovers, friends of every possible gender, in-laws, and colleagues. And they are as diverse and real as they get.
The other strong point of the novel is art. Photography, sculpture, tiling and painting are important plot points in The Hand that First Held Mine. I know next to nothing about art, especially about the 1950s Soho art scene. There are also examples of early journalism, another topic in which I had no interest until this novel. Not only did I learn something with this book, but I was able to visualize the artwork, the places, and the clothing described. The writing is concise and exquisite, and changes as the brush strokes with every painting described.
Now I'm even more eager to sink my teeth into Instructions for a Heatwave, Maggie O'Farrell's new novel!
More Maggie O'Farrell in this blog:
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - review
The Hand that First Held Mine teaser