Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Hours

As I listened to Michael Cunningham read The Hours, I found my opinion of the book changing to a more positive one as I finished each of the six discs. Because the audio version of the book does not have clearly defined chapter breaks, I at first found it difficult to keep the three stories that Cunningham alternates separated in my mind. But as I grew more and more comfortable with the three main characters and their separate storylines, I began to realize what a well-constructed piece of writing The Hours is.

Cunningham sets the tone with his prologue describing Virginia Woolf’s 1941 suicide. It is an unflinching look at the mechanics of her death and it leads directly into the three stories that he will intertwine for the rest of the book: Virginia Woolf in 1923, Clarissa Vaughan in present day Greenwich Village, and Laura Brown in 1949 Los Angeles.

None of the three women are particularly happy when we meet them. Virginia Woolf is struggling with the plotline of Mrs. Dalloway and is unhappy that she ever agreed to live in Richmond rather than in London. She feels isolated and uncomfortable and wants nothing more than to return to her old lifestyle in the city. Clarissa Vaughan is planning a celebratory party for her old friend and lover, a gay poet who is dying of AIDS and she is starting to feel the weight of her own years. Laura Brown wonders how much longer she can go on as an ordinary wife and mother of one young son and yearns for a new life of her own. At times, even death seems to be more attractive to her than the life she is living.

The three women have more in common than their discontented unhappiness, however. Clarissa Vaughan, who has always been called “Mrs. Dalloway” by her dying friend, finds herself, as she plans his party, recreating a modern version of the day that Woolf describes in the novel. Laura Brown, desperately seeking some time alone during which she can for a while shed the role of wife and mother, carries a copy of Mrs. Dalloway with her into which she hopes to escape for a few hours.

It may be the sprit of Virginia Woolf that thematically ties the three stories together so neatly, but all three are beautifully told and filled with such interesting characters that they stand well on their own. But it is the clever surprise that Cunningham saves for his last few pages that brings everything together neatly in a way that makes the reader fully appreciate what he has accomplished in The Hours.

Rated at: 4.5


  1. I haven't read the book (and do not intend to) but I hated hated hated the movie. What a bunch of whiners these women are! If Laura Brown didn't want to be Mrs Brown, she should not have married Mr Brown. I despised almost all the characters and have not trusted a Kenneth Turan movie review since.

  2. I haven't seen the movie, factotum, and likely never will. I have to admit that I didn't "like" any of the characters in the book, including Virginia Woolf. I did, however, find them to be interesting people. What impressed me about the book was the way that the stories intertwined and came together in such a neat package at the end. I was impressed with the writing because I usually don't enjoy a book whose characters turn me off as much as most of the ones in this book managed to do.

  3. You know, I've had this book for ages. But I've never been able to drum up enough desire to read it!! Maybe I will now!

  4. Stephanie, I'd seen it around for a long time but didn't own a copy. When I found the audio book in the library I decided to give it a shot. I'm glad I did.

  5. I loved the movie so much I bought it on DVD. And then ran out and bought the book, which I loved even more.

    I am a big fan of Virginia Woolf's fiction (not her more traditional novels like "Mrs. Dalloway," but her experimental novels like "The Waves," etc.). Like I said, I loved the movie, but had even more praise for Cunningham when I began to read the book and realized he was writing it in the same style and voice that Virginia Woolf uses in her novels. So "The Hours" is written as if Virginia had written it herself. Amazing!

  6. Interesting, Laura. I've only read a little of Virgina Woolf but I found Cunningham's writing style to be much more accessible than hers.

    I actually got bogged down in Mrs. Dalloway and never did finish it.

  7. I agree. I disliked "Mrs. Dalloway" too, and couldn't finish it either.

    Try "The Waves." It is what I call a modern masterpiece. It is an experimental novel written entirely in the thoughts of the main characters from the time they are about 5 years old until old age and death (for some). It is very poetic and quite an amazing achievement. I have read it several times. I don't know if you like experimental formats, but if you do you'll like this one. I have also heard "Orlando" is outstanding and very experimental too.

    I have also read "To the Lighthouse," and it is more traditional, only much better than "Mrs. Dalloway." I have never been able to understand why that particular Woolf novel (MD) is so famous. IMO it pales in comparision to many of her others.

  8. Thanks, Laura, I'll have to give those a try. I have to be in the right mood for the more "experimental" prose, so I'll pick my time carefully. They do sound interesting.

  9. Thanks for that review. I think I'll read it.

  10. I hope that you enjoy it, Sheila. Let me know what you think.


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