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13th June
written by Steph

Maggie O’Farrell is one of those authors who I feel is sadly overlooked by readers and bloggers alike. I guess I can’t fully fault those of you who have yet to discover her since I myself am rather late to the party, only having discovered O’Farrell last year when I had the great fortune to review The Hand That First Held Mine for BookPage. I completely admit that I picked the ARC in part because the cover was SO pretty, and when I started to read it, well, it turned out the writing was ALSO pretty. Win, win, win! One thing I feel like a lot of authors seem to do nowadays is play with interleaved narratives and storylines, taking seemingly disparate characters only to ultimately have their stories/lives intersect in some way. Another popular device of late has been the nonlinear storyline, in which readers are thrust back and forth in time, which has the great risk of being befuddling and confusing if not well done. I enjoy both of these devices, but I’ve seen enough of each to know that neither is a guarantee for a novel’s success as both can be employed rather shabbily. Of course, a novel that manages to incorporate both devices effectively has the high probability of lying in my literary sweet spot and being something I will love vociferously. I like books that some might term “head-scratchers”, and so I tend to enjoy books that make the gears of my mind turn as I read and attempt to piece everything together. The Hand That First Held Mine was a great example of the non-linear and dual narrative joining to produce literary bliss, so I immediately flagged O’Farrell as an author whose back catalogue I should read in its entirety. When I picked up After You’d Gone, I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I can tell you that I certainly wasn’t expecting a love story. Call me crazy, but a book that starts off with the main character trying to kill herself didn’t exactly put me in the mood for romance, but trust Maggie O’Farrell to deliver something unexpectedly delightful from that scenario. Having read The Hand That First Held Mine I should have been prepared for O’Farrell to pluck at my heartstrings with the skill of a consummate musician, and yet I admit I was completely blindsided by this book. It was so engrossing and also SO sad and it smashed my heart to smithereens. O’Farrell is so good at writing human dramas and drawing her readers directly into the minds and hearts of her characters that it is impossible to read After You’d Gone and not experience a lifetime of emotions as you are sucked into its sphere. What I thought was particularly remarkable is that Alice, the protagonist, is so alive and spirited even though she is actually in a coma for the bulk of the novel. That must have been such a tricky juxtaposition to pull off, and yet pull it off, O’Farrel does! I realize that I haven’t said much about the plot of this book and that is partially on purpose. I went into this book not really knowing what it would be about and I think that definitely enhanced my reading of it. Essentially all you really need to know is that the book starts off with Alice Raikes taking a spur-of-the-moment trip to Edinburgh to see her family. Only once her train arrives, something she sees at the station spooks her so much that she immediately gets on the next train home, and promptly walks into oncoming traffic. The rest of the novel sets about trying to untangle Alice’s past so that we can understand not just what she saw in Edinburgh, but how all the other events in her life have led to the fateful moment in which she attempts to take her own life. Although this was O’Farrell’s first novel, it already showcases her gift for twisty, non-linear narratives and her talent for burrowing into the very marrow of her characters’ bones. All of this is to say that I loved this book very very much and I also love Maggie O’Farrell very very much and now I truly am on fire to read everything she has written. Her writing is so lucid yet poetic, and I keenly felt her words deep inside me as I read. She evokes such great feeling in me and brings me such joy (and pain!) that as much as I wish I could just clutch this book to my chest and hide it from the world so that it could be mine and mine alone, I know that to do so would be a huge disservice to all of you. So instead I must wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who is in need of a powerful, luminous book. It might not seem like a good thing to say a book is soul-shattering, but in this case, that term is simply meant as a testament to how commanding and successful this book is. If you have yet to experience the joy of reading Maggie O’Farrell, tarry no longer! You have many great thrills in store. [Also, clearly O'Farrell is on my list of Women I'd Go Gay For... It seems the list grows daily!] Rating: 4.5 out of 5


  1. 06/13/2011

    O’Farrell is new to me but would give her work a spin based upon your recommendation. Like your points about overlaid plot lines that come sliding together at some juncture. It is almost cinematic in a way and its prevalence leaves me wondering about a chicken and the egg type quandary. Popular in novels for a visually oriented society or brought to visual realization out of words? Hmmm.

  2. 06/13/2011

    I have heard of O’Farrell sporadically, and only good things at that, so she’s been on my radar. Thanks for reminding me that I need to read something by her!

  3. 06/13/2011

    New to me so I am so glad about this post. Another one for my TBR mountain.

  4. I’m still to be won over by O’Farrell. I thought Esme was OK, but I don’t quite get why people rave about it so much. The Hand that First Held Mine was a lot better and I loved some of the sections, but again it didn’t wow me. I have a copy of After You’ve Gone, but I’m worried that I will just end up disappointed again. Your mention of the love story worries me, but bizarrely the fact she is in a coma makes it appeal more. I guess I’ll just have to give it a try and find out for myself.

  5. 06/14/2011

    Steph, after reading your post I realize how much I need to read me some O’Farrell – her work sounds amazing!! Loved your post and how it revealed so much about the book without really revealing anything. Happy to have a new author to look into – cheers!

  6. 06/14/2011

    I’ve only read her The Vanishing of Esme Lennox but loved it and have been wanting to read more O’Farrell ever since 🙂

  7. 06/14/2011

    Have you read A Visit From the Goon Squad yet? I can’t remember if I have seen a review of it here or not. The reason I mention it is because it seems to have all the hallmarks of a book you would love in it. It is totally non-linear, and the characters seem to be isolated from each other up until a certain point in each of their stories. If you haven’t read it yet, I do recommend it. I also have not read any O’Farrell, but this book sounds amazing! I love books that crumple your soul a little bit, and it sounds like this book fits that bill exactly. I am off to add this to my wish list, and will be shopping for books very soon, so this book will soon be mine! Fantastic review, Steph!

  8. 06/15/2011

    @ Frances: An interesting conundrum! I hadn’t much thought about the “cinematic” element of overlaid plotlines, but I think you’ve hit at something. This really seems to be a device that has gained prominence in the last 30 years or so, wouldn’t you say?
    @ Stephanie: I know that many book bloggers have read Esme Lennox, but other than that, I’ve not really seen her works featured on blogs which is a real shame! I’m glad that I’m not the first person to have brought her to your attention, though!
    @ Mystica: Mount TBR seems to grow and grow, doesn’t it? 😉
    @ Jackie: I haven’t read Esme yet, in part because of the glowing reviews. I wanted to be able to approach it on my own terms and not have unrealistic expectations for it. As for the love story in After You’d Gone, I think you’ll like it because it is so honest and raw, and it is by no means the sole focus of the novel. There are lots of other things for you to enjoy! 😀
    @ Nadia: This is such a hard book to summarize because so much happens and at the same time, not very much happens at all… Also, I think O’Farrell wants her readers to initially be in the dark about how various elements relate to one another and where everything is headed so I’d hate to ruin that for everyone else!
    @ Bina: I have Esme Lennox so I’ll certainly be reading that in the future. And then I’ll need to procure even more O’Farrell books (I think I still have two or three more that I need to add to the library)!
    @ zibilee: I haven’t read Goon Squad yet BUT I do own it and I do intend to read it. I have been holding off on reading it, bizarrely enough, because I am so certain that I will love it! I am such a weirdo that way – sometimes the anticipation of reading a really good book is so delicious that it makes me put off reading the book itself! 😀

  9. 06/14/2011

    Wonderful review, Steph! This is the most gushing review of yours that I have read till now 🙂 I read ‘After You’d Gone’ a few years back – I discovered it by accident in the bookstore and those were pre-blogging days for me. I loved the book and it is one of my alltime favourites! I loved your observation – “I should have been prepared for O’Farrell to pluck at my heartstrings with the skill of a consummate musician, and yet I admit I was completely blindsided by this book. It was so engrossing and also SO sad and it smashed my heart to smithereens.” Because that is how I felt when I finished the book. I have since recommended it to friends of mine, and have gifted this book to friends who enjoy reading. I haven’t read an O’Farrell book since, but your review is making me want to read more. Like you I am surprised that Maggie O’Farrell is not more popular. Thanks for this wonderful, wonderful review!

  10. 06/15/2011

    @ Vishy: I know I’ve written some other gushing reviews on this site, but this is probably the most effusive I’ve been in a good long while! For as many books that I read, there are so few that I feel really hit me at my core, so when that does happen, I have to make sure everyone knows. I don’t think I could stop myself!
    Also, I’m so glad that you’ve already read this book and can fully understand how amazing it was! It makes me feel as though I wasn’t blowing things out of proportion!
    @ Wallace: Haven’t read Esme yet, but I do own it so I will read it soon! If I responded so well to one of O’Farrell’s lesser known works, I can hardly wait to see what I’ll think of Esme!
    @ Alex: I know there were elements of THTFHM that you didn’t love, and I actually think that having read this and that book, this one is the one I liked more. I think there were perhaps a few times when THTFHM started to feel a bit gimmicky (though I thought the writing was so rich and lovely I pretty much overlooked that flaw), but this one feels more honest in its framing, if that makes any sense…

  11. 06/14/2011

    Someone mentioned it above, but have you read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by O’Farrell? I highly recommend it.

  12. 06/15/2011

    I had a good time with The Hand that First Held Mine (apart from smirking at the description of the guy just “throwing” a Pollock into the back of a taxi :)) What little you gave me of the plot really spiked my curiosity. Added to the my wish list!

  13. 06/15/2011

    You totally hooked me. I love going into books without knowing too much about them, and I love your enthusiasm for O’Farrell. I’m going to look around for her this weekend at my local bookshop!

  14. 06/15/2011

    Your post has inspired me to try again with O’Farrell. I read one a few years ago – I think someone’s girlfriend came back as a ghost – and I wasn’t too impressed, but I’ll try again with another title.

  15. kay

    Steph, I can’t say how happy this review makes me! Having read all of O’Farrell’s novels, I can say this one is my favorite (and also one of my all-time favorites), followed very closely by The Hand that First Held Mine. I wish I had your words to describe in such a beautiful, and precise way, how her writing makes me feel but you expressed it perfectly.
    I do hope you enjoy her other books. I enjoyed all of them except maybe “My Lover’s Lover”, I think it was? Which felt a little less refined, but it might also have been a translation problem since at the time I could only find it in French.

  16. 06/20/2011

    I read this book when it first came out (pre-blogging days) and I remember devouring it in a few days. Thanks for reviewing it and reminding me how much I loved it all those years ago.

  17. 07/11/2011

    I read this book a few years ago and really enjoyed it too. Have you read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox yet? I DEMAND that you do – it’s fantastic! 😉

  18. 07/12/2011

    @ Book Whisperer: I haven’t read Esme Lennox yet, but I do own it! I am saving it for when I need my next Maggie O’Farrell fix! I am a weirdo and like to hoard much loved authors, so it may be some time until I get to it… I’ll probably wait until I have another O’Farrell book in my possession before diving in!

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