Saturday, August 27, 2011

Review: The Hours

The Hours
By Michael Cunningham
Picador 2000

The Hours by Michael Cunningham is the most beautiful book I have read in a long time. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to devour this in one sitting, or read just one chapter a day and savor the lovely writing. The words that come to mind are actually rich and delicious. I don’t love using those words because then I feel like I should write about cake, but in this case they are the right ones.

This novel is about the lives of three women – the esteemed writer Virginia Woolf as she begins writing Mrs. Dalloway; Laura Brown, a California housewife in 1949; and Clarissa Vaughan, a book editor living in New York City at the end of the twentieth century. Each woman deals with questions of desire, wondering if they really want the life they live or if there could be something better if they just take the leap.

“It is impossible not to imagine that other future, that rejected future, as taking place in Italy or France, among big sunny rooms and gardens; as being full of infidelities and great battles; as a vast and enduring romance laid over friendship so searing and profound it would accompany them to the grave and possibly even beyond. She could, she thinks, have entered another world. She could have had a life as potent and dangerous as literature itself.”

Mr. Cunningham is an excellent writer. As someone who loves the writing of Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway in particular, I felt that he evoked the style of her writing without being confined by it. Clarissa is even lovingly called ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ by her best friend Richard. Of course, her first chapter opens with her setting out to buy flowers for a party. This novel is so complimentary to Woolf’s that if you haven’t read either, I would advise you to read that and then read The Hours immediately afterwards.

The Hours is decidedly a book for people who love books. A love for and solace from literature is found in the narrative of all three women. Virginia clings to her writing as her savior from the demons that taunt her. Laura finds reading Mrs. Dalloway infinitely more appealing than going through the motions of her everyday life, such as caring for her husband, child, and home. She finds every moment of possible reading time, beginning first thing in the morning “as if reading were the singular and obvious first task of the day, the only viable way to negotiate the transit from sleep to obligation.” Clarissa is a book editor who searches for the one book that holds the emotional weight of a cherished memory.

Cunningham masterfully captures the fear of wanting more, while realizing there may be nothing else after all. His characters are so wonderfully intricate, and the relationships each deep and meaningful – husband and wife, lovers, parents and children – each one feels exquisitely joyous and painful.  Leonard Woolf thinks of his wife Virginia, “He is still, at times, astonished by her. She may be the most intelligent woman in England, he thinks. Her books may be read for centuries. He believes this more ardently than does anyone else. And she is his wife.”

I am inspired to go reread Mrs. Dalloway and collect the other books of Michael Cunningham. Those Pulitzer people knew what they were doing when they awarded this book. This is one of my new favorite novels and I actually took a few days off from reading after this one – I just needed to sit with this book for a few days. 

Friends, we're bracing for a visit from Irene here in NJ. Please stay safe and if you're far away from the storm, your prayers for those of us battening down the hatches would be greatly appreciated. See you on Monday. 

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