Maggie O’Farrell, The Hand That First Held Mine
Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine is the yin to the yang of Dan Chaon’s acclaimed 2009 thriller Await Your Reply. Like that book, O’Farrell spins portentous parallel narratives whose interrelatedness is an open question (how are these characters connected?)… until it isn’t. But where Chaon wrote about lost souls ill-served by the brother, husband and father figures in their lives, O’Farrell plumbs the taxonomy of female archetypes: mother, daughter, wife, professional, dowager, single parent, mother-in-law, jilted woman, jezebel. Lexie flees her parochial home to seek her fortune in ’50s London, while in the present day, Elina has just endured catastrophic labor to bring the first child into her marriage with Ted.
O’Farrell writes marvelously about motherhood, and as the title suggests, the book is best viewed as a meditation on that relationship, with its attendant impossible heights and depths. The book’s intrigues aren’t quite as brilliant as its ruminations — genre contrivances such as plot-convenient amnesia and the sudden deaths of healthy people feel like parts taken from a less thoughtful book. But such melodrama is doubtless part of O’Farrell’s design, and for a tender mom’s-love tearjerker, this is a corker.