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

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