Archive for May, 2011

A Back-handed Compliment?

The scenes about motherhood I couldn’t, of course, have written without having been a mother myself. The rest is made up. Maggie O’Farrell (courtesy of

It was our May meeting, and everyone’s mind must be on their impending holidays because the general consensus about Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine was that it’s an excellent ‘beach read’. That’s not damning with faint praise; many group members found a lot to commend the book and even those who hadn’t been entranced by it still had some good things to say. And the mothers amongst us all praised how well the author depicted the joys and trials of parenting. However, some surprise was expressed that it had won the prestigious Costa Novel Award of 2010, raising expectations which we felt hadn’t been entirely met.
The book alternates between the lives of two seemingly unconnected women: Lexie in the 1950s and Elina in the present day. No one in the Group had been surprised how these narratives eventually converged, but that didn’t detract from our general enjoyment of the overall story. Jill found it very readable (which she hasn’t been able to say about some recent choices) and ‘an honest, powerful account’ of what it’s like to be a new mother. Barbara, unable to attend but sending her comments by email, was ‘carried along by the plot’, while Maisie’s response was to describe it as ‘a really good story’. Jacqui admired the professionalism of the writing and how well Maggie O’Farrell had identified what her readership would enjoy, despite the book not being to her personal taste.
Helen was one of the book’s biggest supporters, calling the author ‘an updated Margaret Drabble or Lynne Reid Banks’. She particularly related to the ‘awful and good bits’ of motherhood that were depicted. Everyone agreed with this, leading to some personal reminiscences about experiences like that of poor Elina struggling to cope with her baby’s overflowing nappy and stinky eruption in someone else’s bathroom! I was unable to join in with this part of the discussion, but even from my childless point of view I could appreciate the strength of the writing, which gave me an insight into why motherhood can be so emotionally rewarding. Paula praised how Elina was shown to have struggled but eventually got back to her studio to work, proving that ‘motherhood isn’t the end of your life’. We all agreed that the differences between parenting styles in the 1950s and now were well conveyed. There were also stand-out scenes, like Innes’ death, when Lexie wasn’t allowed to see his body, and her own death, when she regretted all the things she wouldn’t be there to share with her son, which we praised because they were so moving.
Our discussion turned to characterisation, as Anne felt this was the key to her disappointment with the novel: she ‘didn’t care enough about the people in it’. Although Barbara found Lexie ‘strong and compelling’, her verdict on the other characters was that they were ‘a bit two-dimensional’, singling out Innes’s ex-wife as a ‘particularly cardboard cut-out villain’. Paula found Lexie got more credible post-baby, and Jacqui liked this character. However, most of us weren’t entirely convinced by the restoration of Ted’s memory, and Anne couldn’t see the point of Elina being Finnish, especially as her dialogue didn’t reflect her origins.
We decided that stylistically THTFHM was a bit of a mixed bag. Jacqui liked the author’s writing style and thought it was a good mix of dialogue and action, whereas Anne and I were disappointed by the dialogue, as we felt that it failed to differentiate sufficiently between the characters. What we all agreed on, though, was the power and poetry of many of the descriptive passages, especially those about the babies and their mothers’ feelings towards them. The account on page 40 of Ted watching Elina sleep and musing on the blood pumping round her body was also cited as a superb piece of writing.
Everyone laughed at my description of this novel as ‘the opposite of a Marmite novel – it hasn’t raised anyone’s passions about it, one way or the other’. So I’ll let Maisie have the final word when she summed up how the Group felt: ‘There’s more to commend it than condemn it’.
I wonder how Maggie O’Farrell, if she comes across this blog like MJ Hyland did when we discussed her book last month, will feel? Her Costa Award will be compensation for any of our reservations we expressed, I’m sure.

This month’s post was written by guest blogger: Janet O’Kane.  Check out her own blog on writing and other stuff at

Next meeting: Tuesday 7th June, 6.30pm, at Doolally’s, Marygate, Berwick upon Tweed. Discussing Consider Phlebas, a science fiction novel by Iain M Banks.


About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit

May 2011
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