I feel I’ve been neglecting the blog 😦 I read at my usual pace and I also go on commenting on other people’s blogs, but I now have a five-book backlog, which never happened before. I think the blog fills an important gap when at work I’m not being challenged enough intellectually and creatively. It keeps my sanity and energy levels up, but it also means I tend to neglect it when things in “real life” are going really well, as it’s happening now with my new job.

Still, I’ll try to be better at it while at the same time ensuring it doesn’t become a chore.

Anywhooo, back to the review. The Hand that First Held Mine was my bookclub’s February choice. The general (me included) feeling was that we weren’t completely in love with it, but really like it all the same. After the wine started flowing we had good laughs over certain holes in the plot, and  became particularly nasty about the idea of someone just “leaping” into a taxi with armfuls of paintings, one of them a Pollock…

The book follows two story lines: in the 50s, 21-year-old Lexie meets a mystery man who changes her life forever. He’s the editor of an art magazine and because of a note he writes to her, Lexie moves to London and finally takes the plunge into the exciting life she always wanted to have.

She is here, she’s in London: any minute now the technicolor part of her life will commence, she is sure, she is certain — it has to.

About 50 years later, we meet Elina, a painter who nearly dies giving birth to her baby boy. This event has a great impact in her physical and mental health, but just as her life is coming back to normal, her boyfriend Ted starts having intriguing flashbacks to his childhood. What binds these two stories?

START SPOILERS

I got hooked into the story very early on, but wished some events were approached a bit more deeply – certain things kept nagging me. For instance, would Felix, a dashing BBC reporter, not recognize a Jackson Pollock if he saw one hidden behind a dresser? How likely is it that Elina, a new mother severely weakened by a horrific experience of labour, would be left to take care of the baby by herself? Why does Elina’s mother not jump for joy when her estranged daughter suggests visiting her with her new-born grandson? Could vile Margot really have trapped Felix, especially when there were no children involved?

Although I effortlessly started to cared about some of the characters (Innes was a great one, I wished he had stuck around more) the novel’s power was diluted by a weak characterisation of secondary people, who could have been much more compelling if they had been given some texture. Vile Margot’s mother, Gloria, was described as pure evil. Felix was just too much of a shallow cad. (Or was he? We have to take Lexie’s word for it.) And did the plot really need Robert Lowe – couldn’t Lexie have gone to the beach by herself?

However, despite the weakness of many of the men in this novel, I really liked the two female leads, Lexie and Elina, unconventional in their own ways, strong and self-reliant women who ‘just got on with it’ and are connected by a love of art. It’s easy for me to like characters who love art, just like those who love books.

The novel’s sense of place was one of its strengths, as the bustling, bohemian Soho of the 50s and its current upmarket counterpart were vividly brought to life. O’Farrell did a great job when she focused on a room and described the transformations which occur to it over time. It brought home that the rooms we live in and the public spaces where we now drink cappuccino have many stories to tell:

Innes’s flat is no longer a flat, at first glance, it is unrecognisable, fifty years on. But the door jams are the same, the window fastenings, the light sandwiches, the ceiling coverings. the raised grain of his wallpaper is just discernible under the awful lilac paint that has been daubed on the wall. there is still the loose board on the landing, which always tripped people up, now covered with beige carpet, and no one who lives here now knows that under there, still, is a spare key for Elsewhere offices.

When O’Farrell deals with the early days and months of motherhood, the feel of a baby’s tense body in one’s arms, a rare moment of serenity shared by new parents, she was also considered spot on by my bookclub friends who are mothers. The dying scene on the beach, on the other hand, was more contentious. Deeply moving for some, like me, but rather sugary for others.

END SPOLIERS

This is my first Maggie O’Farrell, but I have The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox in the TBR. Opinions over which of hers was the best were divided at the bookclub – any opinions?

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