The Hours by Michael Cunningham

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Trade, 226 pages, 1998

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: This one got some buzz before the movie adaptation was released.

Synopsis: The Hours takes a brief but deep look into the lives of three women: Virginia Woolf as she begins to write Mrs. Dalloway; Clarissa, who is dealing with her friend having AIDS; and Mrs. Laura Brown, who is finding she does not enjoy being a housewife as much as she expects herself to. The stories all intertwine and relate back to Woolf’s novel and how it is influencing their lives.

Why you should read this book: The Hours is beautifully and cleverly written, bringing to life mundane details of everyday life, much as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway did. Cunningham’s prose is more readable than Woolf’s might be to the “modern” reader, slowly gathering momentum until the haunting ending.

Why you should avoid this book: This might not be the most readable book if you haven’t read Mrs. Dalloway or if you don’t know much about Woolf, as much of the plot refers and hints at Woolf and her book. Catching the parallels between The Hours Mrs. Dalloway is half the fun of Cunningham’s book.

Opening paragraph:

There are still flowers to buy. Clarissa feigns exasperation (though she loves doing errands like this), leaves Sally cleaning the bathroom, and runs out, promising to be back in half an hour.

Fabulous quotes:

[S]he, Clarissa, simply enjoys without reason the houses, the church, the man, and the dog. It’s childish, she knows. It lacks edge. If she were to express it publicly (now, at her age), this love of hers would consign her to the realm of the duped and the simpleminded, Christians with acoustic guitars or wives who’ve agreed to be harmless in exchange for their keep. Still, this indiscriminate love feels entirely serious to her, as if everything in the world is part of a vast, inscrutable intention and everything in the world has its own secret name, a name that cannot be conveyed in language but is simply the sight and feel of the thing itself. This determined, abiding fascination is what she thinks of as her soul (an embarrassing, sentimental word, but what else to call it?); the part that might conceivably survive the death of the body. Clarissa never speaks to anyone about any of that. She doesn’t gush or chirp. She exclaims only over the obvious manifestations of beauty, and even then manages a certain aspect of adult restraint. Beauty is a whore, she sometimes says. I like money better.

She, Laura, likes to imagine (it’s one of her most closely held secrets) that she has a touch of brilliance herself, just a hint of it, though she knows most people walk around with similar hopeful suspicions curled up like tiny fists inside them, never divulged. She wonders, while she pushes a cart through the supermarket or has her hair done, if the other women aren’t all thinking, to some degree or other, the same thing: Here is the brilliant spirit, the woman of sorrows, the woman of transcendent joys, who would rather be elsewhere, who has consented to perform simple and essentially foolish tasks, to examine tomatoes, to sit under a hair dryer, because it is her art and her duty.

When Quentin takes his hands away, Virginia can see that the bird is laid on the grass compactly, its wings folded up against its body. She knows it has died already, in Quentin’s palms. It seems to have wanted to make the smallest package of itself. Its eye, a perfect black bead, is open, and its gray feet, larger than you’d expect them to be, are curled in on themselves.

Also Recommended: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf; Empire Falls by Richard Russo; The Letters of Virginia Woolf, 1912-1922, Vol. 2 by Virginia Woolf.

Also by this author: Specimen Days; A Home at the End of the World; Flesh and Blood.

Author’s website:

Awards: Pulitzer Prize: winner, 1999; PEN/Faulkner Award: winner, 1999; International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award: shortlist, 2000.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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