Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Hours: A Review by Lindsey Danis

This is the eighth of a many-part series written by the staff and editors of Fringe Magazine, who will be reviewing books from the Pool as part of the 25 Books Project.

I was given The Hours, Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel. My mother, not a very avid reader, bought it in an airport and handed it to me when I was between books one day. "It’s all about Virginia Woolf," she said. "I think you’ll like it." While it’s true that the experience of reading The Hours is richer if you have read Mrs. Dalloway, the acclaimed Woolf novel Cunningham writes The Hours after, the book is a marvel either way.

The Hours tells three stories simultaneously:
  • In 1990s New York, Clarissa Vaughn prepares to host a party for her friend and former love interest Richard, a gay poet physically and mentally ravaged by AIDS.
  • In 1950’s suburban America, a timid housewife struggles in an unhappy marriage and confining social role, finding her only comfort in reading Mrs. Dalloway.
  • And in 1920s England, Virginia Woolf begins to compose Mrs. Dalloway.
Cunningham weaves his stories together on strings, relying on the resonance of certain lines and images, and on the plot points of Mrs. Dalloway. Yet the stories are also connected organically, which becomes clear in the novel’s final pages. The Hours is poignant, each portrait finely honed and beautifully written. If you think that The Hours sounds like a clever trick, or that seeing the movie exempts you from reading, know that Cunningham’s skill lies in the gorgeous prose and the timeliness of each detail. Next to nothing is wasted.

Cunningham tells compelling stories about queer lives. But he also queers the stories he tells, finding spaces for taboo relationships and alternative family structures that subtly show another way of being. It helps that his prose is haunting, that he has an eye for heartbreakingly minute detail, that his characters are fully-rendered flawed beings. Cunningham earns my pick for the 25 Books Project because he works so skillfully with characters who are marginalized in too much contemporary fiction, and because, in The Hours and his recent Specimen Days, he collages literary tropes and genres in a way that is playful without being pretentious, serious while primarily lyric. His dissent from the forms and values of mainstream culture is lyrical, and The Hours is a fine introduction to this important writer.
Lindsey Danis is a writer and pastry chef currently living in San Francisco. She writes the mostly food blog Adventures in Dessert, holds an MFA from Emerson College, gets free reign over the best peaches and plums in town, and dearly misses the ice cream scene in Boston.


Mrs. Micah said...

I read that book around the same time I read Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando (which is wonderfully gender-bending, questioning assumptions about gender roles and about gender itself). He captures the spirit of Woolf in a way that leaves it free to breathe through his work. The movie based on it was good as well.


Anonymous said...

My name is Ilse De Rop and I’m a belgian final year journalism student. For my English class I had to read an English novel. I read ‘The Hours’ by Michael Cunningham and I truly loved it. It’s a beautiful book and incredibly emotional. The fact that Cunningham uses the life and work of Virginia Woolf is very particular and the interwoven stories make the book unbelievably powerful.

I would highly recommend ‘The Hours’, it’s an excellent book. ‘The Hours’ is most certainly not a happy book with a happy ending, but I guess I knew this already before I started reading the book. Nevertheless I loved the book and the three main characters. Now that I’ve read ‘The Hours’ I’m thinking about reading ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. Did you read ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf? I would love for you to give me some feedback about what you think about ‘The Hours’. Should I also see the film? I read some opposite opinions on several discussion boards. And if possible, can you give me some advice about ‘Mrs. Dalloway’, wether I should read the book or not?

I hope you are willing to give me a short answer to my questions. You would do me a great pleasure. Thank you in advance for your anwer.

Ilse De Rop
Plantijn Academy
Antwerp, Belgium