Wally Lamb wrote only three novels between 1992 and 2008, but with a couple of assists from Oprah Winfrey, the first two eventually became bestsellers and established his reputation. Lamb worked on the third, The Hour I First Believed, for ten years before it was published in 2008, and then produced a short Christmas novel in late 2009. It is said that his next book will be released sometime in 2012.
Lamb’s ten-year project to complete The Hour I First Believed resulted in a 740-page novel that moves almost from coast to coast in its telling, covers more than 150 years of Quirk family history, and encompasses three of the worst tragedies in recent U.S. history (the massacre at Columbine High School, Hurricane Katrina, and the Twin Towers murders). Readers also come to know, and often intensely dislike in the process, an array of interesting characters of all ages, social classes, and occupations. This is a big book.
The novel’s two central characters are high school teachers, Caelum Quirk and his third wife, Maureen. As the novel begins to take shape, the Quirks both work in Columbine, Caelum as a teacher and his wife as a part-time school nurse. It is with a sense of dread that one reads the everyday comings and goings of the high school’s students, teachers, and administrators as Lamb sets the scene for the tragedy to come. And set it, he does. Lamb is never in any hurry to get to the action, even in a case like this one in which his readers know it is coming. Rather, he takes the time to develop multiple characters, including even Caelum’s detested in-laws and the two villains of the school shootings themselves. By the time the two boys burst upon the scene to start shooting their schoolmates and teachers, it is almost a relief finally to have arrived at that point.
What happened at Columbine affects Maureen so terribly that even relocation to the Quirk family farm in Massachusetts offers little relief from the constant stress and fears that haunt her. As Maureen’s downward spiral accelerates, it appears that neither her marriage nor Caleb will emerge intact. Then, just after a final tragedy strikes the Quirks, Caelum begins to discover family secrets that threaten to change his lifelong perception of who he is.
Things to like about The Hour I First Believed are numerous. Among them, are the multitude of memorable characters; interesting takes on the real-life Columbine shooters; mini-histories on female incarceration, race relations, and 1940s advertising schemes; and Lamb’s willingness to allocate as many pages as necessary to explore adequately the several interesting side plots he includes. But this willingness to explore side plots so deeply is also the chief flaw of the novel because Lamb’s verbatim inclusion of countless pages of diaries, newspaper accounts, and verbal histories often leads to reader fatigue.
The Hour I First Believed explores what happens to two people forced to realize that they are not the people they always believed and wanted themselves to be. It is about the Quirks’ struggle to recover what has been snatched from them - and it teaches the rest of us plenty.