The Hours by Michael Cunningham
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Cannonball Read IV: The Hours by Michael Cunningham

By shellbelle | Book Reviews | July 25, 2012 | Comments ()

"We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep - it's as simple and ordinary as that... There's just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we've ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more."

As it turns out, it is probably a good thing that I managed to avoid reading the works of Virginia Woolf, despite my traditional and useless English degree. Had I read any of them, I probably would have read Mrs. Dalloway and would have consequently recognized the parallels in The Hours, and in turn have predicted the course of the story. My ignorance was indeed bliss and I can say that I enjoyed The Hours more than I have enjoyed a book in quite some time. But I'm getting ahead of myself already. I chose The Hours because it has been sitting on my bookshelf, unread, for about 8 months. I remember still seeing the previews for the film when I was in 8th grade (I'm not sure anymore if that makes me sound old or young... time will tell) and thinking that it looked fascinating... but choosing to see Catwoman instead. You live, you learn. I have still not seen the movie but if it does any justice to the book whatsoever (and how could it not, with a powerhouse cast like Streep, Kidman, and Moore, plus Claire Danes, Ed Harris, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janey, and John C. Reilly), it is definitely worth seeing.

The book opens with a telling of Virginia Woolf's suicide, complete with her floating down the stream, narrating even in death. Cunningham does a masterful job using stream of consciousness throughout, and his skill shows immediately in the prologue. From then we are thrown into the interweaving of three different stories, about three different women, in three different times. The book tells about one day in each life, starting in the morning, ending in the evening. We have Mrs. Woolf herself, in the process of penning Mrs. Dalloway. Mrs. Brown, who is a discontent 1950's housewife, reading Mrs. Dalloway. And finally there is Mrs. Vaugn, a lesbian in 1990's New York City. Mrs. Vaugne, whose first name is Clarissa, is called Mrs. Dalloway by her best friend and past lover, Richard, and throughout the novel her chapters are labeled Mrs. Dalloway. So we have the intertwining of the tales, one woman writing the story, one woman reading it, and one woman living it.

The Hours is extraordinarily hard to re-tell (I attempted to with my boyfriend last night to no avail), so I won't even try. Suffice to say, Cunningham balances the stories of a day with memories of the past perfectly, so as a reader I hardly noticed the difference between the stories in a character's mind and the stories occurring. Both were fascinating. Cunningham also tackles some heavy issues, but does so without pushing an agenda or opinion. He depicts mental illness as a sort of... hyper awareness, with a strange song of sanity - when the characters are considering suicide or describing insanity, they do so with a rational voice and a calm that makes the reader re-think the idea of being sane. There is also an LBGT element; many if not most of the characters are, shall we say, fluid in their sexuality, speaking mostly of love and little of sexual preferences. It was not until halfway through the book that I decided Clarissa identified as a lesbian, and even still that was through my personal desire to classify and qualify - not through Cunningham's narration. Cunningham is perfectly content to allow his characters to exist in whatever form they will and to allow the reader to draw conclusions where he or she must.

Thirteen years after a book wins a Pulitzer Prize for literary works is certainly not the time to be reviewing it or giving an opinion, but for what it is worth I thought The Hours was incredible. It was filled with lines that delivered truths so clear and eloquent that I felt certainly everyone has always known this, but could not find the words to say it before Mr. Cunningham put pen to paper. The quote I put at the top is a perfect example of one such line. Cunningham's voice as a woman never feels forced or fake and he slips from one character to another with amazing ease. I would recommend this book to anyone, and fully expect it to be in a future canon of literary pieces from the turn of the millennium.

And here I am, with another hour before me.

For more of shellbelle's reviews, check out her blog,

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.

(Note: Any purchases made through the links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • winged chorus

    Thank you for this fantastic review. I've never read this, its always been just below the top five in my ever-evolving list of Books I Want to Read NOW. I'm going to pick it up now.

  • readingfool

    The first time I read this book I was blown away by the writing. The second time I read it, the beauty of the language couldn't overwhelm what I thought was an extremely misognistic undertone. There isn't a flattering description of a woman in the entire novel. In fact, at points, some of the descriptions are down right cruel.

  • Sara Habein

    I haven't ever read Mrs. Dalloway, but I enjoyed The Hours immensely. What I find kind of funny about Michael Cunningham's books is that they are slow-burners. Usually, the first third of it, you're thinking, "Well, this is fine, but I don't know if it's as good as the last one of his I read," and then you pass that 1/3 point and all of the sudden you can't put it down and it's all great. I remember feeling that way about The Hours (and also several of his others, with the exception of A Home at The End of The World, which I loved right away).

    I couldn't ever get into the movie though. I tried, but it just didn't click with me.

  • Addicct

    I've owned this book forever, maybe now I should actually get around to reading it.

  • mona_sterling

    Great review. I've read a lot of criticism of The Hours, dismissing it as self-important, etc., but there are many small moments that ring so true. Having read some other of Cunningham's work, I'm actually surprised The Hours is as good as it is...he's pretty mediocre, imho. Maybe the structure/parallels with Woolf's work lends it something, but it is a great read.

  • This was a great review! I remember loving this book as well, and I might give it a re-read soon.

  • Funkyfacecat

    Very interesting and well-written review - I will have to read The Hours again now. I enjoyed the film but found it strangely cold and clinical, but I can't remember getting that sense from the book. I'd suggest reading Orlando or To The Lighthouse rather than Mrs Dalloway if you feel like getting into Woolf. I do think Mrs Dalloway shouldn't really be taught below uni level (even teaching modernism to undergrads can be tough), it's pretty hard going and might put teenagers off Woolf completely, which is a shame because she was a remarkable observer and writer and feminist.

  • KatSings

    Great review! We read Mrs. Dalloway in my AP English class senior year of high school, which is when the movie came out - so we did a study in parallels by reading the book and taking a trip to see the film. The Hours, as a book, is the best of the three elements we were exposed to. You aren't just glad you skipped Mrs. Dalloway for the reasons you stated - it's a terrible book. Virginia Wolff is a writer I truly despise. We actually drew on the covers of our copies of Dalloway, and wrote notes in the margins about how stupid it was and how if she made another floral allegory we were going to set things on fire.

    The Hours, however, is beautifully written and well paced, with characters you get attached to. You picked the superior book to read and review, imho!

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