The Hours was the original working title which Virginia Woolf used for Mrs Dalloway and in this beautifully affecting novel, Michael Cunningham uses this as a springboard to explore a day in the lives of three very different women, all of whom are linked in some way to that book.
In 1923, Virginia Woolf is working on the first draft of what will become Mrs Dalloway. She has a visit from her sister Vanessa, argues with her housekeeper and works with her husband, all the while trying to wrestle the demons that have driven her from London to Richmond. In 1949, hemmed-in housewife Laura Brown would love nothing more than to spend her day reading Mrs Dalloway, but she has a young son to look after and a birthday cake to make for her husband’s birthday. As her day progresses, she fights rising feelings of panic and suffocation regarding her domestic life.
In present-day New York, Clarissa Vaughan, a book editor, is planning a party for her former lover and oldest friend Richard, a poet who is dying of AIDS. Richard’s nickname for Clarissa is Mrs Dalloway and as she plans to celebrate his winning of a major literary prize, she struggles with memories of what might have existed between them had things turned out differently.
As the novel travels back and forth through the hours of these three women across almost a century, their lives converge, in a moving a devastating manner on the night of Clarissa’s party.
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) know 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.
The Hours is one of those books that had I read it when I was younger, would most likely appear in all my lists of favourite books. It is a novel that is about the very essence of humanity, and reading it, you feel like it would take a university thesis to unravel all the many rich and deep threads that Cunningham has woven through his book. His narrative is a meditation on the act of creation, the mundanity of the ordinary and the need to feel worth something.
As it flits between the consciousnesses of these three women, the book reaches delicate emotional depths – uncovering basic truths in the marvels of the everyday.
“That is what we do. That is what people do. They stay alive for each other.”
In terms of style and structure, The Hours is pitch-perfect. There are echoes here of Woolf’s style and the narrative method is an undoubted homage to Mrs Dalloway with each section being restricted to the events of a single day. It is not necessary to have read that book to appreciate The Hours, but undoubtedly, a knowledge of Clarissa Dalloway’s day, those hours that she spent, add to the pleasure that this novel offers as it explores the pain of regret and the wish to leave some kind of indelible mark, be it through a book, a birthday cake or the perfect party. Rather than being an imitation of the previous novel, The Hours feels haunted by Mrs. Dalloway just as the characters are haunted by memories, literature and lost chances.
In a prose that is accessible yet also deeply poetic, Cunningham brings these characters to vivid life and the final intersection of these three lives is a thing of beauty, brought about with a quiet, simple power.
The Hours is a thoughtful, deeply satisfying novel that doesn’t hit one false note and beautifully explores how our lives are given meaning not by what we have achieved, or failed to achieve, but by the moments of happiness that signified hope, if only for an hour.
READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER READ: 373
NUMBER REMAINING: 373
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!