Elina and Ted and Lexie and Innes

Maggie O’Farrell weaves the stories of two couples a generation apart. Maggie O’Farrell weaves the stories of two couples a generation apart. (Ben Gold)
By Valerie Miner
Globe Correspondent / April 25, 2010

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In her dreamlike fifth book, young Irish novelist Maggie O’Farrell juxtaposes then intertwines the London stories of Lexie Sinclair and Innes Kent in the 1950s with those of contemporary Elina Vilkuna and Ted Roffe. She lyrically paints the passionate tensions of romantic love, joys and ordeals of parenthood, and invisible, inextricable knots of family secrets. From under the surface of “The Hand That First Held Mine’’ float faint clouds of duplicity. As the disquieting mood intensifies, we watch these dramas through a mysterious, occluding scrim.

Rebellious, confident Lexie runs from Devon to London in 1956 and is soon living with Innes, the brilliant editor of Elsewhere, a hip arts journal. Lexie goes from strength to strength and develops a career as an edgy international critic.

Elina and Ted are slowly recovering from the traumatic birthing of their first child, Jonah. Elina almost dies during a three-day labor. Still reeling from the bloody caesarian, Elina and Ted are even more unsteady than most young parents. They drift in and out of their new responsibilities.

Among the pleasures of this novel are vivid close-ups. Ted recalls Elina’s recent blood transfusions. “He looks at the delta of veins at her wrist, the thin violet patterns on her eyelids, the trace of blue that runs through her cheek, the web of vessels at the curve of her instep.” A few pages later, Elina muses about Ted. “He has hair the colour of conkers, size-ten feet, a liking for chicken Madras. One of his thumbs is flatter and longer than the other, the result of sucking it in childhood, he says. He has three fillings in his teeth, a white scar on his abdomen . . . a purplish mark on his left ankle from the sting of a jellyfish.’’

Lexie and Ian romp through London’s art scene. Eventually, they move in together and she realizes she’s truly left Devon behind. “He had a book shelf that ran around the entire place, at the level of the ceiling. ‘So no one bloody well steals them,’ he said, when she asked why. The walls were hung with art: a John Minton, he pointed out, a Nicholson, a de Koonig, a Klein, a Bacon, a Lucian Freud, a Pollock. Then he took her hand. But enough about them, he said, come see the bedroom, it’s through here.” Life is perfection until Ian’s wife and daughter appear at the Elsewhere office.

Elina, a painter, and Ted, a film editor, struggle with their jobs, feeling preoccupied with the miracle of survival and the demands and pleasures of Jonah. Again, O’Farrell attends closely, “Elina cannot bear it. Why are they talking to each other like this? What has happened to them? She tries to think of one thing, one interesting thing to say, to snap them out of this, but her brain fails her.” What follows is a rapturous three-page-long paragraph about Elina and Ted falling in love.

O’Farrell constantly fiddles with perspective. Her knowing narrator is so intimate with Lexie, Elina, Ted, and Innes that the story seems to spill directly from their conscious and unconscious voices. She flashes back and forward, revealing secrets about pasts and futures unknown to characters. One chapter begins, “This is where the story ends . . . . Lexie became what she is today during a swim off the Dorset coast in Late August.” O’Farrell is a master of telescoped history. All this time shifting intensifies the uneasy mood.

Lexie accepts Ian’s explanation that he permanently separated from his wife after she betrayed him while he was in POW camp. With their plucky editorial team, they are building Elsewhere into London’s premier arts magazine. Lexie goes to Oxford to interview an author, returning to find Innes in hospital with pleurisy.

Drifting to the present, we find Ted distracted, lost. He asks questions about the past his parents can’t — or won’t — answer. During aphasic spells, he grasps for hazy memories: “he sees a woman with long hair bending over him, her hair swinging into his face, putting a plastic cup into his waiting hands. He sees himself on a landing with a green rug, its woolen strands between his fingers, listening to the sound of his father’s voice downstairs, which sounds pleading and apologetic.”

Membranes between the stories become more permeable as daily coincidences increase. In a gallery, Ted is struck by a photo of two people from the 1950s. He frequents The Lagoon Café Bar, built over the remains of the Elsewhere office. “He seems to be staring at the place where Lexie’s pin board used to hang. An untidy array of notes, proofs, lists, postcards, transparencies that only she understood. But, of course, he’s just looking at the rain.”

It’s harder and harder to disengage the two generations as characters meander in and out of each other’s dreams, memories, identities. O’Farrell creates a suspenseful atmosphere of distrust. When she finally reveals the connections between the two generations and lifts the opaque curtain, we enter a scene of surprising grace and hopefulness.

Valerie Miner is the award-winning author of 13 books, including her latest novel, “After Eden.’’ She teaches at Stanford University. Her website is


Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt,

341 pp., $25