Thursday, August 11, 2011

The hand that first held mine by Maggie O'Farrell - Book Club Review

We finally had our book club meeting last week, and boy we are a tough bunch!  But sure I'll let you decide that for yourselves! There are a couple more reviews to come, so I'll update the post when I get them.

'The hand that first held mine' - By Maggie O'Farrell - Winner of the 2010 Costa Novel Award

"The book was an easy read and I was always happy enough to return to it.  The content was questionable in a lot of places, some of it was very schmalshy (new word right there!) and the plot didn't so much thicken as curdle and begin to smell... Hard to see why it won the Costa - though it did help wile away a few tired hours without once taxing the brain so deserves some credit there..."

"There are a lot of good things which can be said for this novel.  At times the writing is rather wonderful, indeed it would be worth the read to study and enjoy the first chapter alone, because therein lies the writer Maggie O’Farrell at her best.  The scene in Soho is masterful, and again I would say worth picking up just to read this section. Unfortunately, the writing style becomes tiresome the further into the narrative you go, perhaps because the characters never quite live up to what the reader might have expected of them.  Nonetheless the author has a very unique style and I can understand why many would find this a very enjoyable read, it certainly is an easy read.  Also, I have to say that the shifts in point of view where done incredibly well, and worth future study of how Maggie O’Farrell perfected this art.
Overall though, this novel was a disappointment.  The characters were often whimsical to the extreme, and not distinctive in the sense that one often overlapped into the other, both in the modern day story and the older 50’s/60’s one.  Nor did the two stories work together well, and you were left wondering why they were set up to support each other in the first place.   Also, I found the mother /child element of the modern day story unrealistic, and like others I wondered if this author had experienced motherhood at all.  I was surprised therefore to discover that she had, and indeed that one of her aims was to highlight this relationship.  Perhaps something got lost in translation, or perhaps the writer was too close to the subject matter to transcend it onto the page, but whatever the reason, if this was Maggie O’Farrell’s intention, the result unfortunately came far short of the mark. "

"Reading 'The Hand that first Held Mine' reminded me of that Dorothy Parker quote - ""This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force." It really is just awful. It left me literally asking 'why?' It's poorly written, badly plotted and generally fairly pointless. Characters that the worst chick lit author would be embarrassed by, a plot as absent as its charm, and simple factual errors that were the cherry on the top of this dreadful literary cake. To be avoided. The Hand That First Held Mine? I think you can let go now... "

"Although there are elements of good writing in 'The hand that first held mine', O'Farrell fails to pull the two main stories together. The lack of plot doesn't help and the characters, Lexie in particular, remains wooden throughout."

"I felt this book exists in a limbo between literary and mainstream fiction. It is too banal and conventional to be literary, and it's characterisation is weak and one-dimensional. On the other hand it is too plot less to be a good pacy mainstream book. What sells this book (arguably) is its style which has it's moments but it is ultimately uneven.
I would imagine O'Farrell's style is polarising. It can be very arch and artificial and old fashioned and at times this worked for me, but across the novel it wore me down, and I found it self-indulgent. And this feels like a very self-indulgent project overall - you get the feeling that the author wanted to write about certain things - motherhood in one plot strand, the 50s/60s in another, but I didn't get the feeling that she had a strong plot-orientated concept to support either of these strands. So one plot strand (the weakest), set in the contemporary age, offers her the opportunity to think about motherhood and life with a new baby - but this plot strand has no movement. It feels like a series of plot less, pointless observations. Plot obviously isn't everything, but Elina and Ted are dull, dull, dull characters.
The stronger plot line - set in the 50s/60s - also feels like a free-flowing , directionless exploration of that era. Not a scrap of O'Farrell's no doubt exhaustive research remains unused by the end of it, and the reader is left swamped in over-description. This plot-strand features livelier characters, and Lexie is undoubtedly the novel's best character but that is only in relative terms to the other lifeless ciphers that populate these pages. Lexie is meant to be a girl finding herself and exploring herself, but she never quite lives up to her initial first chapter promise, Innes is meant to be smug and insufferable and is, but Lexie isn't too far behind him, but, fatally, neither of them are remotely interesting.
I got the impression that the author might have wanted to write a period novel primarily, but at some point decided for whatever reason (to make the novel 'relevant' perhaps) to provide a contemporary plot strand alongside. I think the novel would have worked if it had taken that risk and focused in on the 50s/60s - that's when O'Farrell's writing is at its best (relatively). In the contemporary plot strand she feels uncommitted and slapdash (particularly with details regarding babies), and consequently her characters end up being rather flat and the plot mopes about, wringing its hands aimlessly. Having said all this, I would read O'Farrell again under different circumstances. This type of novel is not her forté - her style would suit a more contemporary, experimental novel and her style could be interesting set in that sort of mould. But this is an odd fit of a novel - a stylist (however uneven) trapped in the confines of the dullest, most conventional novel you can imagine."


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