Michael Cunningham – The Hours


It’s not often a book leaves me completely speechless. Wowed. Awestruck. Absolutely blown away. But then again, it’s not often that I come across a book like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Both, Claire and Rachel, recommended the book to me, saying I should read it once I finish Mrs. Dalloway. And then, I saw this fantastic review over at deucekindred’s blog, and I felt compelled to read the book sooner rather than later – specially as I’d just finished the Virginia Woolf classic as part of Woolf In Winter.

In the first chapter, Clarissa, a fifty-something year old woman, steps out to buy some flowers for a party she’s having that evening. She loves the city she’s in, enjoys the hustle-bustle of life, bumps into an old friend, and contemplates the perfect party that evening.

However, unlike Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa isn’t in London this time, but in New York. It’s not the 1920s anymore, but we’ve fast-forwarded to 1999. And, Clarissa isn’t Mrs. Dalloway, but, she’s Clarissa Vaughn. Her best friend, Richard (a poet suffering from AIDS), does call her Mrs. Dalloway after the famous fictional character though…

While the book chronicles a day in her life, as she plans the perfect party (in honour of Richard), much like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the book also chronicles one day in the life of two other women in different times and places: Virginia Woolf in the 1920s and Laura Brown in Los Angeles in the 1940s. All three stories are interspersed with one another, resulting in a heartbreaking emotional masterpiece, that illustrates that despite the barriers of time and space, lives do interlock.

The second chapter is when we’re introduced to the legendary author in the 1920s. Virginia Woolf’s account is semi-fictional. She’s ill, refers to herself as an eccentric genius, and lives in Richmond with her supportive loving husband, trying to recuperate, but missing London dreadfully. Cunningham imagines Woolf in the initial stages of writing Mrs. Dalloway – her thoughts, her inspirations and her character development – as well as her illness, and her fragile state of mind.

She despises Richmond. She is starved for London; she dreams sometimes about the hearts of cities. Here, where she been taken to live for the last eight years precisely because it is neither strange now marvellous, she is largely free of headaches and voices, the fits of rage. Here all she desires is a return to the dangers of city life.

And the third chapter introduces us to Laura Brown in the 1940s. Mrs. Brown is the wife of a World War II veteran, and she has a three year old child. She’s a recluse, an obsessive reader, who is working her way through all of Woolf’s fiction, and has just started Mrs. Dalloway. And, she has suicidal tendencies.

Right now she is reading Virginia Woolf, all of Virginia Woolf, book by book – she is fascinated by the idea of a woman like that, a woman of such brilliance, such strangeness, such immeasurable sorrow; a woman who had genius but still filled her pocket with a stone and waded out into a river.

The prologue is set in 1941: a new War has just begun, and Woolf is walking purposefully toward the river, certain of what she’ll do. The prologue ends with her husband discovering her suicide note… and me feeling incredibly overwhelmed, just eight pages in. Cunningham doesn’t mince words, doesn’t beat around the bush, but the language is wonderfully concise, while being eloquent and metaphoric.

Cunningham also makes subtle changes to the story of Mrs. Dalloway, to illustrate its timelessness and universality. Moving from one big city to the city that never sleeps, making Clarissa lovers with Sally, and Richard taking on Septimus’ role (I think), are just some of the quirks that makes the story read almost completely differently. However, if you read this book prior to reading Mrs. Dalloway, I strongly suggest reading the classic.

And then, we get into the intricacies. According to this work, Woolf intended Clarissa to be the suicidal character in her novel – that despite her love for life, some small domestic failure could potentially push her over the edge. Say, her party being a failure? From what we know of Clarissa Dalloway, would that be so impossible? Was Clarissa Dalloway merely a reflection of Woolf herself? Or, was fiction and reality still two completely different threads for Woolf in the 1920s?

Someone else will die. It should be a greater mind than Clarissa’s; it should be someone with sorrow and genius enough to turn away from the seductions of the world, its cups and its coats.

This is a multi-layered story, with enough allusions to merit a thesis of sorts. I’m still left flabbergasted as to how much I loved this book, and how little justice (if any) I’ve done to its genius with my extremely trite review. What leaves me really puzzled is, how on earth did the author pack in so much in just 226 pages? Details, amazing descriptions, incredible characterisations and an enthralling storyline of three complex women, while simultaneously reworking one of the greatest classics of the last century, Cunningham’s book is pure gold.

31 Responses to “Michael Cunningham – The Hours”

  1. 1 historyofshe

    I’ve never read this book, but I have seen the movie. I absolutely loved it and thought Meryl Streep was amazing. I’d like to see how the novel compares. Have you ever seen the film?

  2. I’ve been meaning to read this book, but I’m not sure if I should read Woolf’s book first before reading this one. What do you think?

  3. I have this book on hold for me at my library and I am going to pick it up after work this afternoon – you have made me look forward to it very much! I was tempted to read this one after recently finishing Mrs Dalloway and loving it too.

  4. 7 deucekindred

    Excellent review! don’t worry your review isn’t trite at all :)

    Glad you loved it – Im still thinking about it’s astounding beauty. Definitely a book you have to read before you die!!

    • Thank you. Don’t think the review’s a patch on yours though…

      I concur – it’s a must read! Over and over… you should read Mrs. Dalloway soon as well :)

  5. I loved the movie and it inspired me to read Mrs Dalloway. Thanks for your review; I am now really keen to check out The Hours for myself.

  6. 11 farmlanebooks

    I watched the film and found it very boring. That put me off reading the book – especially now I know the plot. I can see why it would work much better as a book, but don’t think it is going to get near the top of my TBR pile for a while!

    • Oh! I’m so sorry to hear that you didn’t enjoy the film. I’m definitely curious about it, considering I loved the book. I will be looking out for your thoughts if and when you get down to The Hours. I really hope the experience will be infinitely better than the movie.

  7. I read this years ago and I remember that it HAUNTED me afterwards, for weeks. I think it has to be one of the most beautiful, incredible books I’ve ever read, and I am surprised that not more people have heard of it/read it. The film is great but the book is infinitely superior.

    I do think you get a lot more from it having read Mrs Dalloway first and also knowing a bit of Virginia Woolf’s history, as you can then appreciate what a clever reworking of the book Cunningham has made, but what it so brilliant about it is that you can read it without knowing a thing about Mrs Dalloway and still be blown away.

    In fact, I now want to reread this as I am reminded all over again of how spectacular this book is!

    • I agree that you get more from The Hours by reading Mrs. Dalloway first, but the Cunningham book does stand alone. I saw the film The Hours before reading it. Both were good, but the book was even better than the film.

      You can read Mrs. Dalloway more than once, with pleasure, and I have done so.

      • I fully intend to read Mrs. Dalloway again. Think on my first read, I missed way too many subtle points, which so many other bloggers highlighted.

    • If it hadn’t been for you (and Claire), this book would have passed me by! So, thank you! I agree with you about the book being incredible and beautiful (and, excuse me for doing this, but incredibly beautiful).

      Cunningham’s fiction is outstanding, and it kept me hooked on. Finished the entire book one Sunday afternoon in a cafe, sipping on some hot chocolate, and having some shortbread. Perfect Sunday.

  8. I think Michael Cunningham is a great writer and The Hours is definitely his best. His book Speciman Days has a historical literary connection as well. It is three longish short stories that are all related to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

    And if you haven’t seen the movie of the Hours you really need to. I recommend you first watch Mrs. Dalloway with Vanessa Redgrave, then watch the Hours. It makes a great double feature.

    • Oh, I should seek out Specimen Days. I used to be a big Whitman fan, back when I was seventeen (it seems like so long ago!).

      After reading all the comments, the movie is definitely on my list. Actually, after reading your comment, both movies make my list. Thanks =)

  9. So what you are really saying is that both Mrs Dalloway and The Hours need to go on the TBR?!

    I have for a while been building up to another rant about (possibly) substandard books trading off the backs of classics. Should I ever get sufficiently riled to rant about it in public, please be assured that I am not referring to this one. It sounds like a model example of how such things should be done.

    • It works to play off the classics if (1) the classic is really worth it and (2) you get the spirit (mode? feeling?) right.

      • Couldn’t agree more :)

        3) you’re not trying to gain cheap publicity out of another more talented person’s work.

        4) you actually respect the original work enough to create another classic, instead of ruining the original.

    • Yes, both need to go on the TBR. And high up :)

      Please do – I’ll definitely support you in that endeavour. I haven’t read it, but the thought of Sixty Years Later (Sequel to Catcher in the Rye) makes me cringe each time. And then, at Waterstones, they’ve kept both books side by side. What on earth is that about? I was really annoyed about that, and, had my little rant.

      This book though isn’t gammy. It’s not trite. In fact, it takes a classic, and then re-shapes it to make another classic, that leaves the reader completely awed.

  10. I absolutely LOVE this book. It’s one of my favourites. I usually shy away from books that are a take off from other stories but this was so amazing and so well written. The movie was pretty decent too, except Nicole Kidman’s weird frowns.

  11. I’m delighted that you loved this book as much as I did. Like Rachel, I now desperately want to reread it! Words cannot convey how wonderful this book is but you have enthused wonderfully well as well as done justice to its intricacies and how much it achieves in a fair slight number of pages. Thomas reminds me that I have Specimen Days on my TBR but I want to fall in love again with The Hours.

    • Thanks again for the recommendation. About a week later, and I’m still awed.

      Guessing a re-read of The Hours is in the pipelines then? :) I’d love to read Specimen Days as well – again, not heard of it ’til now.

  12. I thought this book was beautifully done. I hope to revisit it after I’ve actually read Mrs. Dalloway.

  1. 1 Review: The Hours by Michael Cunningham « Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog

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