Discussing “The Hand That First Held Mine”
Posted by: Misha Stone
This month my book group discussed Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine. I brought in my hardcover that has an overlay of one face underneath another, a nice layering effect that mirrors the parallel stories told of the two main women in the novel. The U.S. paperback only features one of the women on its cover.
It’s always fun for me to revisit a book that I read and even wrote about here years ago. We started by talking about the title which most of them liked for the ways it resonated with the themes of the book while others found it simplistic and a give-away.
The Hand That First Held Mine tells two parallel stories. Lexie Sinclair is young, brash and headstrong as she makes her way in love and life in 1950s London, while Elina Vilkuna is a painter and new mother in present day London, haunted by the traumatic birth of her child from which she has disassociated. Elina’s husband, Ted, also finds himself adrift in hazy, troublesome memories after the birth of his child. O’Farrell weaves these stories together in an engaging way while London also takes center stage as setting and character.
By and large the group enjoyed the book a lot, but the discussion got tangled as we moved between the parallel stories. The group confused the two stories at times and many readers confessed that they found Lexie’s story in the past more compelling for them; Elina and Ted are in a bit of a fog for most of their section and there were some mild complaints about this.
We talked about how naming seemed important in the book. Some of the women in the group responded positively to the themes of motherhood in the novel and others did not. Some time was spent talking about some secondary characters and one reader felt quite sorry for and identified with Margot, a character who comes off as pretty despicable a lot of the time. I said this was a testament to O’Farrell’s talent, that she made her unsympathetic characters complex enough to allow for a difference in opinion.
One reader posed an excellent question at the end: “What did everyone think about the construction of the book?” It was a perfect way to come full circle and discuss the book’s strengths and weaknesses.