Irish writer Maggie O'Farrell's new book revolves around two fiercely independent single mothers — one a journalist, the other an artist — nearly 50 years apart. Lexie Sinclair, kicked out of her 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 plot lines, 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.