Review: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham

This is one of those books I suspect “everybody” has read by now, as it won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was made into a popular movie in 2002.  Well, I hadn’t read it yet, despite running into it nearly every time I entered a used bookshop.  Now that situation has been remedied, and I’m pleased to say I enjoyed the experience.

The Hours uses Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway as a jumping-off point, and chronicles a single day in the life of three women:  Woolf, during the period in which she wrote the novel, Laura Brown, a 1950s housewife smitten with the novel, and Clarissa Vaughan, nicknamed “Mrs Dalloway,” who is preparing to host a party for a dear friend on a summer day in the late 1990s.

I read Mrs Dalloway several years ago, and recall being underwhelmed.  It was my introduction to Woolf and her writing requires special attention.  I’ve since come to appreciate her work; and found myself nodding in agreement as Laura Brown experiences the novel for the first time:

How, Laura wonders, could someone who was able to write a sentence like that — who was able to feel everything contained in a sentence like that — come to kill herself? What in the world is wrong with people? Summoning resolve, as if she were about to dive into cold water, Laura closes the book and lays it on the nightstand. … At least, she thinks, she does not read mysteries or romances. (p. 41)

The day unfolds through chapters about the three women in turn.  Clarissa goes out to buy flowers for the party (much as Clarissa did in the novel), Laura makes a birthday cake for her husband, Virginia struggles to get a few sentences down on paper while staring down her depression.  Cunningham writes delightful prose, making even the most ordinary activities exquisite and sensual:

Guiding Richie’s hands with her own, she helps him dip the cup into the flour. The cup goes in easily, and through its thin wall he can feel the silkiness and slight grit of the sifted flour. a tiny cloud rises in the cup’s wake. Mother and son bring it up again, heaped with flour. Flour cascades down the silver sides. Laura tells the boy to hold the cup steady, which he nervously manages to do, and with one quick gesture she dismisses the grainy little heap on top and creates a flawless white surface exactly level with the lip of the cup. He continues holding the cup with both hands.  (p. 77)

As the day proceeds, we come to know each woman better.  Laura feels confined by her lifestyle, but guilty because she “should” love being a good wife and mother.  Clarissa is a perfectionist about the party, but also tremendously insecure about her life and relationships.  As for Virginia, Cunningham shows us signs of the mental illness that eventually leads to her suicide.  Knowing what’s in store for her makes her sections of the novel all the more poignant.

The lives of these three women become intertwined in a surprising way, which actually made me gasp.  And now, after reading The Hours I want to re-read Mrs Dalloway.  If you haven’t read either book yet, I recommend reading them concurrently; each would enrich the other.


8 thoughts on “Review: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham

  1. Virginia Woolf is one of those writers I feel I should like – but am not sure about. I read To the Lighthouse a long time ago and didn’t really get on with it very well. I then read The Hours a few years ago – which led to me reading Mrs Dalloway, I did rather like it (loved The Hours) but still not sure about VW.

  2. I read the whole of Virginia Woolf (and I mean the *whole* of it including diaries and letters!) in my early twenties and loved her. I re-read “To The Lighthouse” recently as Youngest Child is studying it and loved it again. Which is why I’m a little resistant to reading The Hours – I’m irrationally fussy about books about people I love! However, my Middle Child, who is also a Woolf-lover, has warned me off the film so I’m afraid I will definitely be avoiding that. I think I might be more inclined to read the book if it was just about three women with intertwined lives, but from what you say it sounds like it is relevant to the plot that one of them is VW!

    • I’m impressed you’ve read all of Woolf’s work, kaggsy. I think I’d get more out of her writing if I were taking a course. As for VW being part of the plot in The Hours, I think she’s thrown in there for the “typical reader” who has not read Woolf. That way they have some clue about Mrs Dalloway as context for the rest of the story.

    • Lisa, isn’t it funny how whenever you admit to being the last person on the planet to read something, others come out of the woodwork to “confess”? Happy New Year!

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