Chapter 33: “The Hours” by Michael Cunningham (1999)

“There is a beauty in the world, though it’s harsher than we expect it to be.”

I had today off of work, and not much to do to fill all 24 hours it offered me. I woke up at 8:30, finished up Ernest Poole’s His Family until almost noon, ate some lunch, fixed my futon, watched some television, wrote a blog, played a game, caught up with some friends and family, took two showers, listened to a lot of music, and, in the midst of all this activity, I decided that I wanted to read a whole book in one day. So, once again, I consulted the literary oracle that is Joshua Riley and requested a suggestion.

At his behest, I took Michael Cunningham’s 1999 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Hours, off the shelf. He had just finished it, had really enjoyed it, and told me that, at a scant 226 pages, I could very well finish it in one day.

And, you know something? I did finish it one day. In fact, I finished it in a couple of hours. And, after I finished it, I actually wanted to read it again.

It was simply a marvelous novel.

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Let me first say this—Michael Cunningham is a great writer. Now, let me say this—Michael Cunningham knows that Michael Cunningham is a great writer. Despite the fact that The Hours is a fantastically written novel, it is, overall, an overwritten novel; and, unfortunately, this does more to distract the reader than engage the reader.

The novel follows three separate stories—the lives of Clarissa, Laura, and Virginia; Virginia Woolf, that is. And these three separate stories all merge in communality between the three women at the end of the novel. Scattered throughout are themes and nuances and symbolism that hint at the outcome of the novel. And, I have to be honest here, I found this literary approach incredibly trite and entirely too predictable. In fact, at one point very early in the novel, I even sent Joshua a text message that said, “So are Laura’s ‘Richie’ and Clarissa’s ‘Richard’ the same person?”

They were.

However, there were so many little subtleties in this novel that Cunningham must have poured so much effort into so painstakingly crafting. There are themes and symbolism that are almost completely obscure to even the most well-trained literary eye. Cunningham, I’m sure, really wanted The Hours to be a completely perfect novel. And, even though it isn’t a completely perfect novel, it’s a good novel.

A damn good novel.

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I was a really big fan of the drama Cunningham so effortlessly creates in each storyline. In fact, the conflicts of the novel are so subtly written, that I hardly even noticed them—even as they were occurring. Even though there was very little “going on,” very little “action,” there’s a certain amount of tension around these frivolous goings on that compelled me to continue reading, just to figure out what was going to happen next.

But I was more impressed with the background story that he wrote for Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway. Even if the story was entirely contrived, it offered a really great glimpse of Michael Cunningham’s feminist critique of the book. I was actually more interested in the biographical aspect than I was in the rest of the story. In fact, even though I really don’t like Virginia Woolf as an author, I was so intrigued by Cunningham’s background that I’d really like to investigate her life a bit more.

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4 thoughts on “Chapter 33: “The Hours” by Michael Cunningham (1999)

  1. I have it waiting on my shelf for the right moment! Have seen the movie, so I know what happens…and will be able to focus on the writing, or, as you suggest, the overwriting.

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