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Cannonball Read IV: The Hours by Michael Cunningham

By shellbelle | Books | July 25, 2012 |

By shellbelle | Books | July 25, 2012 |

“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.)