Winner of the Costa Novel Award in 2010, ‘The Hand That First Held Mine’ by Maggie O’Farrell features two alternating narratives. The first one is set in the 1950s and tells the story of Lexie, a young woman who runs away to start a new life in the Soho area of London and falls in love with Innes Kent, a magazine editor. The second is set in the present day and tells the story of Elina, a young Finnish woman who has just had a baby with her partner, Ted. The two generations are linked, but how?
After having read a lot of heavy historical fiction recently, ‘The Hand That First Held Mine’ was quite an easy read but it is by no means a throwaway book and it certainly didn’t win the Costa Novel Award for nothing. O’Farrell weaves the two stories together very skilfully. At one point, I thought I had the whole book figured out but in the end, it turned out that I was wrong which was very pleasing. O’Farrell’s writing is quite sparse but always emotionally resonant, particularly when dealing with the main theme of the book which is motherhood. Overall, I thought it was a very subtle, sensitive and satisfying novel which I would definitely recommend.
On a side note, I must say that I really like the cover of this edition of ‘The Hand That First Held Mine’ which features a photograph taken by John Deakin (if you’ve read the book, then you’ll know that this is relevant to the story). However, I have noticed that some of the covers of O’Farrell’s earlier novels, such as this one of ‘My Lover’s Lover’, are nowhere near as good.
This has got me thinking about the importance of book design. Based on what I’ve read so far as well as other people’s reviews of her other novels, O’Farrell’s work is more than just over-sentimental chick-lit and I think it’s unfortunate that some of the covers fail to reflect this. On the other hand, this cover of her latest novel, ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’, is far better. I wonder if O’Farrell’s publishers have started taking a different marketing strategy in light of her literary success? Or am I reading too much into this?
People say that you shouldn’t judge books by their covers but marketing is a fact of life in the publishing industry and it is clear that certain genres are often tailored to specific audiences. What do you think? Do you judge books by their covers? Have you ever initially dismissed a really great author because of a terrible book cover?