No 373 The Hours by Michael Cunningham, Book 2 of #20booksofsummer22

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.


20 Books of Summer The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

37 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Wow that’s exactly halfway into your 746! Great work.

    I was only vaguely aware of this book (and the film) but without much idea what the story is it how it connects up to Mrs Dalloway. This sounds excellently done and I think I should look this up soon since I have a Bookmarked volume on Mrs D waiting on my TBR for which I mean to revisit the original book as well


  2. This sounds like such a memorable read. I really enjoyed reading your review and love how you noted that your younger self would have loved it even more. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved experiencing this fabulous book once more as a result of your review Cathy. It’s an utter delight from cover to cover. Each woman’s story is engrossing but if I had to pick one that drew me in emotionally it was Laura’s


  4. Wow, that’s a great review, and definitely makes me want to reread Mrs D. and then read this! And congratulations on 373 out of 746 – that’s amazing! How cool that your halfway point book turned out to be such a good one.


  5. I remember enjoying this novel very much when I read it around the time of the film adaptation. So glad to see that you liked it too, Cathy. As you say, it’s very poetic.


  6. Aaaaagh exactly half way! Wow!

    I love this book, too, even though it features a real person in fictional form, which I usually dislike. I loved Cunningham’s work up until this one; I even liked the film of this book. Glad you thought so highly of it, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Lovely review – I like what you say about the echoes of Woolf’s style. I read this book when I was maybe 17 and loved it, and have read it a couple times since and loved it again. And his The Snow Queen and Flesh And Blood are also absolutely brilliant.


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