The Hours book review
I’m not sure it’s possible to find any kind of weakness in Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. As a work of fiction, it’s as perfect in its way as anything I’ve ever read. And it proves, if it needed proving, that a book does not have to take up a huge amount of shelf space to be considered “great”. In just over 200 pages Cunningham explores questions of sexuality, sanity and insanity, the inner conflict created by societal pressures to be “normal”. It may have begun life as a homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, but as a work of art it is unique and unforgettable.
Everything in The Hours takes place in the space of a day – four different days involving three different women. In alternate chapters we meet Clarissa Vaughan (Cunningham’s Mrs. Dalloway), Laura Brown, and Virginia Woolf. One of these women is writing a book, another is reading it, and the third may be living it. The book begins with a prologue, set on the day in 1941 when Woolf, facing another recurrence of manic depression, decides to take her own life. She leaves the house in East Sussex where she lives with Leonard, her husband, and makes her way down to the river where, having selected a large stone and placed it in her pocket, she walks into the water and drowns.
Fifty years later, on a morning in June, Clarissa, an upper-class housewife like Woolf’s heroine, heads out of her New York apartment to buy flowers. She is giving a party for her longtime friend, and sometime lover, Richard Brown. Richard is a poet who has written a huge, difficult novel, and he’s just been awarded the Carrouthers, an esteemed poetry prize awarded for a life’s work. Richard is also dying of AIDS. As she walks along the pavement, Clarissa is buoyed by the energy of the city – “its intricacy; its endless life”. She loves the world for being rude and indestructible and feels privileged to be alive. Along the way she bumps into an acquaintance, Walter Hardy, a successful romance writer, and impulsively invites him to the party. Richard, she knows, will be furious to hear he’s been invited, but it seems the right thing to do.
The next chapter takes us back to a morning in 1923 when Virginia Woolf and Leonard are living in Richmond, where he has brought her to get her away from the noise and confusion of London. She’s prone to terrible, debilitating headaches that herald the onset of madness. If she can keep them at bay a little longer, the rest cure will be pronounced a success; Leonard will agree to move back to the city. In the meantime, she will begin work on her novel. She picks up her pen and writes, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”.
Laura Brown’s morning begins in Los Angeles in 1949, on the day of her husband’s birthday. Her son, Richie, is downstairs having breakfast with his father and Laura, who is pregnant with their second child, can’t summon the energy to join them. She lies in bed reading Mrs. Dalloway, wishing she could simply stay there, reading. Never having to get up, never having to play the role of good wife and mother, as much as she loves her family. Eventually, she gets out of bed and goes downstairs, forcing herself to act like a “normal” housewife. She waves her husband off to work, pours herself a cup of coffee, and tells her son they’re going to bake a special cake for his father: “She will not go upstairs and return to her book. She will remain. She will do all that’s required, and more.”
Over the course of these three days, the women are faced with their fears and yearnings, their need to make sense of their lives. Clarissa Vaughan seems the happiest; she is, like her namesake, “destined to charm, to prosper”. She has a partner, Sally, she has a daughter, she has money and a nice apartment. But the man who meant the most to her, and still does, is dying. And she can’t know if there might have been something she might have done, long ago when they were young, that would have changed the course of events. They were lovers for a time, and then she walked away.
Laura Brown, who wishes to disappear, drives to a hotel, where she takes a room for a couple of hours, and reads. And then, because she must, she returns, a ghost in her own home. She will leave again, eventually, but not today. And she won’t commit suicide.
Virginia Woolf, as we know, will give up the struggle. She’ll leave a note for her sister, and one for Leonard: “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been,” she will write. And then she will kill herself. But not today.
Cunningham has admitted it was “enormously daunting” to attempt to write a novel that presumed to enter the mind of Virginia Woolf. It’s something even the hardiest feminist might balk at, and Cunningham is, of course, a man. But, as he put it, “Well, why would you want to write a novel you know you can write? Why not just go down in big, green flames?”
It’s not till near the end that you understand how the three stories, the three women, are linked, and I’m not going to go into that here. But I will say that there are common themes that run through each woman’s narrative. It’s about the joy that can be found in being alive, and the tragedy of not being able to continue . . . not being able to face the next hour, and the next, and the next. And it’s about the understanding that love has its limits, that there are things it cannot do; it cannot save a life if, for whatever reason, that life is not meant to be saved. I found that especially true and especially sad. There’s a moment near the end that sums up the terrible, bittersweet nature of the human condition. It brought me to tears and seems, to me at least, to warrant being quoted in full:
“We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep – it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. 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”.