The Hand That First Held Mine
Maggie O'Farrell
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Buy *The Hand That First Held Mine* by Maggie O'Farrell online

The Hand That First Held Mine
Maggie O'Farrell
Mariner Books
360 pages
January 2011
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Alexandra "Lexie" Sinclair, a solitary and frustrated girl from Devon, seeks the bright lights of the big city, positive that nothing will stand in her way. Anxious to escape her life of boredom for cosmopolitan London, Lexie’s ticket to ride comes one late summer in the 1950s when she meets handsome writer Innes Kent - thirty-four, art dealer, journalist, critic and self confessed hedonist - who is visiting in his silver and ice-blue MG sports car.

Life for Lexie as she knows it is about to begin. Twirling strands of hair between finger and thumb, she falls in love with Innes, perfectly captured by his smile and his tanned skin. In turn, Innes is entranced by Lexie’s sculptural alabaster look, seeing a potential for still life in his new muse, an interplay of light and shade and color like a scene from a fresco, “a perfect rural Madonna” in her tight-fitting blue frock.

Through alternating chapters, post-World War II through to the swinging Sixties and forward to present-day London, O’Farrell unfurls Lexie and Innes’s passionate love affair, sometimes innocent, other times gallant, and often fused with a powerful, rampant sexuality.

In London, hoping that any moment now the “Technicolor part of her life will commence,” Lexie’s world is made up of many incarnations. Hanging around the fringes of Soho, she finds employment as a lift attendant in a department store and, later, a job with Innes working at his magazine, Elsewhere. Surprisingly, Innes maintains his unremitting passion for Lexie in spite of his marriage and child, filling Lexie’s blood and bones with madness and possession, eventually confessing to her that he is completely infatuated.

Lexie and Innes’s personal dramas are complemented by the parallel story of Elina and Ted. An artist from Finland with a new baby son, Elina is having difficulties adjusting to motherhood. Anxiously phoning Ted at his office in Soho to tell him that she has these moments where “life just disappears into a hole,” she remains haunted by her C-section and can’t stop thinking about the searing, blowtorch plain, the loss of blood and the complications that almost ended her life.

Ted is also plagued by bad memories. Whole chunks of his childhood are lost in a “hazy miasma”; he remembers nothing before he was about nine. His mother has a zeal for reminiscences, but they don’t seem anyway connected to him. None of her stories tally with his own blurred impressions of his youth. It appears that Ted is somehow connected to the fate of Lexie, she harboring her own secrets and regrets, along with the shock of motherhood, the troughs of exhaustion, the shrinkage of life, her existence eventually limited to the streets where she lives.

Between Lexie’s growth as an independent woman and Elina and Ted’s struggles and hectic, speedy dreams, O’Farrell skillfully drives her story of tenderness, heartache, perseverance and passion. The author’s love of Soho remains central - a suburb of bohemians and inebriates, jazz clubs and eating houses, underground coffee shops, ramshackle flats and art gallery openings. Eventually all the connections are revealed with a sudden vivid clarity. Hands are forever held, and the heady weight of the past is finally unburdened, along with the realities and challenges of parenthood and the carefree existence of youth.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2010

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