Intertwines the stories of three women linked by their relationship to Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway: Woolf herself, in the throes of writing Mrs. Dalloway and contemplating suicide; Laura, a young wife and mother suffocating in the confines of her tidy life in Los Angeles in 1949; and Clarissa, who is giving a party in the present in New York City for her closest friend, Richard, a writer dying of AIDS.
Without spoiling the ending, I will remark that some of these parallels include lesbianism, suicide, party plannning and Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. It's an eclectic mix, but if you're familar with Woolf's literature, you will probably connect the dots pretty quickly. Admittedly, I have not read any of Woolf's books, but a quick study of her on Wikipedia was enough for me to fully appreciate what Michael Cunningham was trying to tell in his Pulitzer prize winning story.
The Hours is an interesting women's tale with characters you can empathize with. I feel fortunate to have seen the movie before reading the book, so the talents of Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris filled my head as I read Cunningham's words. I highly recommend either one, or even better, both the book and movie for an introspective look into the lives of three thought-provoking women.
In what Cunningham likens to a jazz improvisation, The Hours weaves characters, themes, and motifs drawn from Mrs. Dalloway into an entirely new yet still recognizable form, told through the stories of one day in the lives of three different women. The novel opens with Virginia Woolf herself as a character, choosing a large stone to cram into her coat pocket as she walks towards the river Ouse. As the book proceeds, Virginia's story flashes back to 1923, the year in which she wrote her most famous novel. Clarissa Vaughan--affectionately called "Mrs. Dalloway" by her friend Richard, a poet losing both his sanity and his life to AIDS--is an editor in her fifties, living in 1990s New York not with an MP but with her longtime lesbian lover, Sally. She, like Clarissa Dalloway, sets out to buy flowers for a party she is hosting that evening. In the third story, set in California in 1949, pregnant homemaker and mother Laura Brown is torn between staying in bed to read Mrs. Dalloway and getting up to prepare for her husband's birthday celebration. As each woman's day moves along, she is haunted by memories and old dreams, hungers for moments of brilliance and creativity, faces the conflicts between domestic demands and a sense of selfhood, and ponders the stretch of time ahead of her.
Part of the pleasure of reading The Hours--at least for lovers of Mrs. Dalloway--is to follow Cunningham's movements and variations, his reassignment of character names and traits and his revisioning of scenes from Woolf's novel. But in and of itself, The Hours is a stunning achievement.
(My students, who were assigned both books, felt that The Hours also helped them to better understand Mrs. Dalloway--another tribute to Cunningham's skillful rendition.)
I've never read Mrs. Dalloway, but that didn't take away from the poignancy of the book. Excellent writing, worthy of the award. The novel is constructed in a stream of conscience way, where Cunningham jumps back and forth between the 3 woman, linking them between the woman who wrote the book, the woman who is reading the book, and the woman who is living the book. Recommend.
She knew she was going to have trouble believing in herself, in the rooms of her house, and when she glanced over at this new book on her nightstand, stacked atop the one she finished last night, she reached for it automatically, as if reading were the singular and obvious first task of the day, the only viable way to negotiate the transit from sleep to obligation.
First come the headaches, which are not in any way ordinary pain. They infiltrate her. They inhabit rather than merely afflict her the way viruses inhabit their hosts. Strands of pain announce themselves, throw shivers of brightness into her eyes so insistently she must remind herself that others can't see them. Pain colonizes her, quickly replaces what was Virginia with more and more of itself, and its advance is so forceful, its jagged contours so distinct, that she can't help imagining it as an entity with a life of its own.
S: 1/2/17 - 1/11/18 (10 Days)
The Book Report: Three women mirror the facets of the life of Clarissa Dalloway, heroine of the novel Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. One life is Mrs. Woolf herself, shown in the depths of despair as she convalesces from one of her crippling bouts with depression in the suburban aridity of Richmond while pining for life in London's Bloomsbury, writing her novel of the exquisite nature of the quotidian. Another is the life of Mrs. Laura Brown, dying a million deaths every day in suburban Los Angeles, raising a son and pregnant again by a good man she doesn't love, as she reads Mrs. Dalloway and ponders escape. Lastly the life of Clarissa Vaughn, whose long unrequited love for Richard Brown, her gay poet/novelist friend, has led her to care for him tenderly in his final years as an AIDS patient. He long ago nicknamed her “Mrs. Dalloway,” both for her first name and for her exquisitely self-abnegating strength.
Over the course of one day in the life of each woman, everything she knows and feels about her life is sharply refocused; it is made clear to each that, to escape the trap she is in, she must accept change or die in the trap. The ending of the book brings all three strands to their inevitable conclusions, with surprising overlaps.
My Review: I first read this when it came out in 1998. I fell in love instantly, as I had with Mrs. Dalloway at a slightly earlier date. I loved the imaginative structure of interwoven lives, commenting on each other and riffing off the events in each world, echoing some facet in every case the events in the iconic novel Mrs. Dalloway.
I can't give it five stars because, in the end, I wondered a bit if the clever-clever hadn't gotten in the way of the emotional core of the book, which I saw as the gritty determination of the women to live on their own terms and in their own lives not dependent on convention. In making the book conform to this ideal, I felt that some plot strands weren't honestly dealt with but rather forced into a shape required by the author's plans.
That cavil aside, the book is beautifully written and wonderfully interestingly conceived. I'd recommend it heartily, and suggest reading it in conjunction with the movie.
One of the many profound ways these women's lives and hearts overlap is the way each woman seeks to create her own form of perfection in the world, making such a small thing into so much more than what it is. For Clarissa, it's putting together a party that will properly honor her friend. For Laura, it's assembling a cake that reflects all her feelings of love. For Virginia, it's taking words and shaping them into a story that reveals and transports. And yet, each in her own way feels herself incapable of achieving this perfection. This is just one part of this novel, just one piece, but it's a piece that resonated with me and is something I found to be a part of what makes this novel so heartbreakingly beautiful.
Not only do are each of these women affected personally by the novel, Mrs. Dalloway, but also the writing style of The Hours imitates Woolf's style, the way she layered image and meaning together in complex network of poetic prose. Like Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours is a novel that requires a certain amount of presence and focus in order to follow, but the result of each novel is uniquely beautiful and each are worth a read.
A delightful little footnote: I love that Clarissa mentions seeing a movie star (maybe Meryl Streep) and that Meryl Streep plays Clarissa in the movie version of The Hours.
When I first came out of the movie theater, I was depressed. “Because of the subject matter of the movie?” you may well ask. No, not in the least. Rather, because I felt I could never write anything that good (and I assumed, given the integrity of the film, that the Director had stayed close to Cunningham’s original storyline.
When I next read the book, I closed it at the end and was equally depressed. “Why” again? Because reading the book only confirmed my earlier sense of resignation.
The Hours is a flawless performance in celluloid and an equally flawless performance in prose. Could Michael Cunningham rest on his laurels with this book? I think he could. I hope for all of us, however, that he won’t.
Brooklyn, NY, USA
All three women suffer in some degree from the scripting of their lives. As Woolf writes (or scripts) the fictional life of Mrs. Dalloway, her husband Leonard confines her to a domestic script removed from London where she has experienced such psychological unease. Woolf struggles to remember her lines as she gives directions to the housekeeper. She thinks that her sister, Vanessa, that visits is more comfortable in this play of domesticity than she will ever be. Laura feels that she is "about to go onstage and perform in a play for which she is not appropriately dressed, and for which she has not adequately rehearsed." Clarissa surveys her own kitchen and hardly recognizes the accoutrement of her life, all tastefully selected and arranged but more prop than reflection of her essence, the eighteen year old girl that kisses Richard in a defining moment.
Virginia and Laura both struggle under the societal expectations of their times. The lines they strive to deliver have been written by a patriarchal culture. Both characters have husbands that seek to control their actions under the guise of protecting them (from themselves presumably). However, both women reveal in their thoughts that the sanity or balance they desire exists outside the boundaries of the societal definition of sound mental health. There are few alternatives for both but escape. Conversely, Clarissa appears the picture of equanimity and normalcy. However, despite her freedom to live openly as a lesbian and make her own choices for her life, Clarissa is still playing the traditional roles of wife and mother. When Richard the poet seeks to define her as she truly is in his one prose outing, the language is virtually incomprehensible to most.
Ultimately, language and behavior outside of the patriarchal norms exist as "the other" in this novel no matter the time frame. The focus on objects, the peppering of life's sets with both the expected and the personal are beautiful here as the characters strive to meet societal expectations that do not always serve their intellect, heart, or sanity well.
I really did not enjoy this book and would probably have abandoned it if it hadn't been in the form of an unabridged audiobook. The author seemed to be trying to be something literary, as if having just completed a creative writing course, but it didn't work for me. It was tediously slow, with some repetetive themes such as flowers, and chaste kisses between women that portended something else, and repetetive phrases, such as 'here is...', which irritated me.
I have not read Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Wolf and maybe I would have got more from this book if I had, possibly i would be giving three stars. But i'm not convinced that I'd be awarding any more than that, even so.
There are three main (female) characters. The first, set in the 1932s, is the author, Virginia Wolf, struggling with mental health problems and trying to write her novel, Mrs Dalloway. The second, is a young mother in the 1940s, who is desperate to read her copy of Mrs Dalloway but must bake a cake for her husband's birthday and care for her adoring young son. And finally, in the present day, we meet Clarissa, renamed Mrs Dalloway by her dying gay friend, for whom she is preparing a party.
That is about it, very little happens and the ending is similarly flat. I think the only part I gained anything from, was the description of Virginia's two nieces and a nephew discovering a dying bird in Vanessa's garden.
Not recommended at all.
As soon as a question forms reflections flood in. All through I was struck by recurring themes and ideas. I would love to study this book in depth to explore further many of the puzzles…..
Puzzles Queries and Thoughts …
Is this a book of middle age and the relinquishing of youth?
Kisses are laid before us with very careful almost precise language.
Creativity .., so wonderful yet here so close to sanity and the converse.
The joy of life and yet the shadow of death is never far from the writing.
Telling three tales that begin as disparate but gradually and subtly weave themselves together, the novel concerns three generations of women impacted in some way by Virginia Woolf's landmark novel Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf herself struggles with her personal demons as she starts work on the novel; Laura Brown, a 1950s housewife, reads the book and seeks out the beauty and purpose in her own frustratingly staid life; and Clarissa Vaughan is a modern Dalloway-esque woman planning a celebration for her AIDS-ridden friend Richard, a renowned author.
Each narrative contains its own impressive moments, most particularly Mrs. Brown's, which is tinged with the kind of sadness and mundanity that marks the best of Woolf's work. The originality of the tale is a refreshing alternative to the sections on Mrs. Woolf (which are fictionalized but based upon Cunningham's readings of her diaries) and Mrs. Vaughan, although the latter is an impressive reimagining of the Dalloway narrative that both honors the source text and rewrites it in some surprising ways.
The thing that makes the novel so astonishing, however, is Cunningham's subtle sympathy for the women he so masterfully draws. Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Vaughan, Cunningham's own wholly original creations, are both as conflicted as they are confident, and though they are faced with a number of challenges throughout the brief text, the authorial voice never appears judgmental. In fact, though Cunningham is consciously invoking Woolf, his tone is impressively even. The result is that when the strands of the novel intersect with a stunning revelation, we are as shocked by the turn as we are impressed with Cunningham's ability to keep the wool over our eyes. At all turns, his voice is confident and restrained, letting the words do the work -- and they do it well.
Affirming the power of the novel and the ability of literature to trasncend time and space, The Hours is an incredible achievement that is as hard to put down as it is to forget. Though it may have been conceived as a humble tribute to a masterwork, its near-flawless execution makes it nothing less than a masterwork itself.