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.


Review: The Seduction of Mrs Pendlebury, by Margaret Forster

Rose Pendlebury and her husband Stanley are an elderly couple, living quietly in a London suburb slowly being taken over by young families.  Rose is a prickly sort, judgmental and set in her ways:

She wasn’t going to let any irritation spoil this lovely park. She was going to sit on a seat with her eyes feasting on all the greenery and the lake and the ducks and the flowers and not be bothered by anything. People were the trouble — if only there were no people, she would be happy.  (p.35)

Stanley goes with the flow, investing considerable energy in placating Rose and preventing the proverbial apple cart from being upset:

Rose had always been contrary. It was part of her way. Just when you thought you’d misunderstood her it all came right in the end. She wasn’t one of your straightforward types. Her mind was like the inside of a car engine, all little nuts and bolts and wires that looked a terrifying tangle until you knew how it worked and which bit operated what. (p. 43)

When Alice and Tony Oram move in next door, Rose instantly judges them as a pretentious couple bent on urban gentrification — the same way she sees other neighbors.  One day while out working in her garden, she hears sounds of a child playing next door.  Slowly, Rose befriends 2-year-old Amy and, even more slowly, Alice.  The Orams turn out to be better sorts than Rose expected, and Alice makes it her personal mission to break down Rose’s inhibitions and improve her outlook.

And that’s what I thought this book was about, so when Rose began to warm up I settled in for a heartwarming story of love and friendship.  But there was a strong dark current running through this book as well.  Alice’s friendship with Rose introduces conflict and stress into her marriage.  Rose’s relationship with her sister-in-law is contentious.  She treats her husband poorly.  Her son moved to Australia, and the implication is that he needed to put distance between himself and his parents.  And all of Alice’s care and concern can only go so far toward rehabilitating Rose.  The story takes a very sad turn, and leaves Rose and Stanley on the cusp of change, their future uncertain.

The Seduction of Mrs Pendlebury was a layered and very well-written character study.  I had to admire Margaret Forster’s characterizations, but the plot fell short.  The “seduction” of Rose was complete about halfway through the book, and the emotional roller-coaster that followed left too many loose ends.