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Book review: 'The Hand That First Held Mine,' by Maggie O'Farrell

By Heller McAlpin
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 12, 2010; C04

THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE

By Maggie O'Farrell

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 341 pp. $25

Irish-born writer Maggie O'Farrell isn't one to hold her reader's hand, but with an urgent tug on your attention she'll pull you into her complex, intricately imagined novels about women who refuse to conform. Her mesmerizing, enormously satisfying fifth novel, "The Hand That First Held Mine," follows "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" (2007) and again involves nastily suppressed family secrets that cause untold damage.

Her new book revolves around two fiercely independent, unmarried mothers -- one a journalist, the other an artist -- nearly 50 years apart. Lexie Sinclair, kicked out of university for walking through a door for men only and then refusing to apologize, flees her family in Devon for bohemian London in the mid-1950s. When she moves in with a brilliant, flamboyant magazine editor -- 13 years her senior and separated but not yet divorced -- her family disowns her.

Alternating with Lexie's tale is an initially less absorbing story set in contemporary London. Elina Vilkuna is a Finnish artist who nearly dies while delivering her child by emergency Caesarean section. Motherhood is a terrible adjustment for exhausted, aching Elina, who wonders, "How did she become this -- a woman in stained pajamas, standing weeping at a window, a woman frequently possessed by an urge to run through the streets, shouting, will somebody please help me, please?"

The birth also has a traumatizing effect on the baby's father, a film editor. Deeply shaken by nearly losing his girlfriend, he experiences disturbing flashes of long-buried memories that don't jibe with the childhood he knows as his own, raising questions about his very identity.

As we begin to sense connections between these two plotlines, the contemporary narrative achieves greater resonance. In viscerally poetic prose, O'Farrell captures "the utter loneliness" of motherhood and "the constant undertow of maternal anxiety." Each mother struggles to maintain her individuality in the face of all-consuming, overwhelming love for her son.

The two strands of O'Farrell's plot advance steadily toward a point of convergence. "The Hand That First Held Mine" evokes Shirley Hazzard's 1980 masterpiece, "The Transit of Venus," with a similar early warning that a character will die young and a sense that they are all on a collision course with fate. The result is an uncommonly gripping and moving read.

McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR.org, the Los Angeles Times and the Christian Science Monitor.

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