Martine's Reviews > The Hours

The Hours by Michael Cunningham
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Jul 27, 08

bookshelves: film, glbt, modern-fiction, north-american, psychological-drama
Recommended for: those who love an intense look at life
Read in March, 2008

Several years ago I had the fortune of watching the film adaptation of The Hours, which quite blew me away. I'm not sure why it then took me so long to read the book on which the film was based, but I'm glad I did, as it's just beautiful.

The Hours is both a tribute to and an update of Virginia Woolf's 1920s classic Mrs Dalloway, in which Pulitzer-winning author Michael Cunningham tries to answer the question of how Woolf's characters would interact in a present-day setting. Short on action but long on memories, associations and momentous decisions, it's a character study of three women who are looking for some meaning in their lives. First of all, there's Woolf herself, recovering from a bout of mental illness and busy outlining the novel that will eventually become Mrs Dalloway. Secondly, there's Laura Brown, a 1940s American housewife who wishes to lose herself in the experience of reading Mrs Dalloway. And thirdly, there's Clarissa Vaughan, a modern fifty-something New Yorker who is nicknamed Mrs Dalloway and who experiences a day not unlike the one Woolf describes in Mrs Dalloway. Although the three women seem very different on the outset, they do in fact have a fair bit in common. For one thing, they're all perfectionists who obsess about little details and continually fall short of their own standards and expectations. For another, they all, for various reasons, feel trapped and want OUT. And finally, they're all prone to obsessing about the past -- to wondering why they made the decisions they made, and whether their lives would have been very different if they had made different choices at the time. Cunningham first lets his women dwell on those questions for a while, then has them either accept their current lives or find a way out. Their internal drama and eventual decisions make for a brilliant meditation on past and present, on choices and on resignation to those choices. Among other things, the book tells you what it's like to realise that you may have had your moment and let it slip through your fingers, never to regain it. It shows you what it's like to be a dreadful perfectionist, doomed always to let yourself down. It shows you love, life, death. Especially the latter. More than any other other novel I've read, The Hours is steeped in death. That probably sounds depressing, but it's really quite beautiful, if you're morbid enough to see the beauty in that sort of thing. Especially since it is in its own way quite life-affirming.

I could say a lot about the fabulous way in which Cunningham links his three stories -- about the many recurring themes, associations and echoes which make this such a hauntingly beautiful book. I could also say a lot about the respectful (and in my opinion successful) way in which he elaborates on the themes and questions raised in Mrs Dalloway (a book you needn't have read in order to appreciate The Hours, although it will definitely improve your understanding and enjoyment of the latter if you have). However, the main achievement of the book, as far as I'm concerned, is the marvellous way in which Cunningham paints emotions, more specifically emotions associated with depression, angst, melancholy and regret. I think you need to have been depressed or bipolar yourself really to understand the violent mood swings through which Cunningham puts his protagonists -- rapid transitions from despair to epiphany, from frustration to gratitude and exultation, from spiritual numbness to lyrical rapture, from ferocious neuroticism to a calm resignation to things. Having been there myself, I could relate only too well. I'm sure the same is true for many people -- men as well as women.

I'm taking one star off because Cunningham's shifts in perspective can be a tad jarring and because the dialogue is occasionally monotonous (all Cunningham's characters sound like the author himself, which is not a big deal as he's very articulate, but is still a bit of a flaw). Apart from that, though, The Hours is a great book which I highly recommend to anyone -- not just to neurotic women. :-)
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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Dottie Martine, your review, as always is absolutely beautifully on target.


Martine Thank you, Dottie. I still wish it took me slightly fewer words to get on target, but I'll stop boring people with that. :-)


message 3: by Jude (new)

Jude good review!

this is one of those times that i am really glad i read the book first, and that i read it without having learned much about it from blurbs or reviews. you have done such a good job of describing what Cunningham does - and for me it was a rare and gratifying adventure to actually discover what he was doing in my own way. i loved the love for Woolf and her people shining through this book.

i remember how much i wanted to share what a thrill it was to read this book, to be the reader i needed to be in order to comprehend it.

i wanted to somehow let friends know what it is like to have readers and writers and characters meet this way. the movie Hours is independently lovely, but i think only the book itself can really throw that particular party:>.

(hmm & btw: as i read The Hours it was the movie of Dalloway that was foremost in my memory of that story.)

As you say - it is clear that the both the book and the movie work without the reader/viewer knowing Dalloway. But it kinda reminds me of - o i am really sorry about this folks - it kinda reminds me of what the nuns told me about the unbaptized babies in Limbo and their little cups of happiness. Baptism meant heaven, seeing the face of god : big cup of happiness, full. But not seeing the face of god was ok for the unsaved babies cause they only had little cups and the important thing was that the cups were full. I prolly needn't mention here that expressing doctrinal differences with Rome when one is in the second grade does not not endear one to a nun managing a room of over 50 children alone. but i digress. and all i'm flailing to say (not a typo, no) is that without Dalloway, i think the brimming cups are smaller.


Martine Thanks, Jude! I'm glad you like the book as much as I do. I also like what you said about letting readers, writers and characters meet. Yes, that's exactly what Cunningham does here, and he does it so well! Really makes you wonder about the connection between writers, characters and readers...

And yes, the Mrs Dalloway movie! I didn't mention it in my review, but it's good, isn't it? I also saw parts of it in my mind's eye as I read the book. So did Cunningham himself, I think. There's a nice bit in there about Clarissa seeing an actress on set and wondering whether it's Vanessa Redgrave. Lovely nod, that. Made me smile.


message 5: by C. (new) - rated it 4 stars

C. Beautiful review, Martine. I love the way you focus on the bigger picture, and write about it so well.

I just saw the movie version. I've watched it three times in the past two days. It's the first time, I think, that watching a film has really added to the experience of reading the book for me. Now I just have to read Mrs Dalloway! It's first on my list for the summer.


Wayne I've just read ALL your reviews and comments with great interest.
I came to this via the movie in 2003...3 viewings!!! and I would love to see it again now it is about seven years later.
BUT am settling first for a reread of the book.Mainly because I certainly did NOT think it was as strong as the film.Perhaps a very formidable cast and all those visuals!!!Anyway thanks to you all for setting me back onto The Road of the BOOK!!!


message 7: by Ally (new) - added it

Ally The Bright Young Things would like to invite you to share your opinions on this book (and others). If you haven't already checked us out please pop in...

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