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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Hours: A Novel

While I was a fan of the movie many years ago, I have never taken the opportunity to pick up Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours, so I took advantage of my summer and took it on vacation. 

Virginia Woolf, in 1923, is beginning what would become her most famous novel, Mrs. Dalloway, while struggling with a deep depression that will eventually overcome her. Laura Brown, in 1949, is a struggling housewife with a young son who only wants to break out of the confines of her suburban life. Clarissa Vaughan, in present day, is planning a party for her best friend, who has just won an award for his work as a novelist but is also dying of AIDS. These three women have lives that are intertwined without ever knowing it, and once they are woven together no one will ever be the same.

Ok, so we all know that this is the 1999 winner of the Pulitzer Prize. (Really, there is a sticker on the front of the book that says so.) We also know that the Academy Award-winning movie starred some heavy hitters. So it would be redundant of me to go on and on about how good the book is. At this point, 15 years after it's publication, I have a distinct feeling you might already know that, or at least that you can glean that from a bit of internet research.

Instead, I want to tell you about a reaction that is not like me. I was surprised at how angry I became halfway through realizing that people were going to die. Now, this is not a spoiler as anyone who knows anything knows that Woolf committed suicide a few years after the publication of her novel. I also told you in the synopsis that Clarissa's best friend has AIDS, so he will also have to go at some point. Maybe it's just because I read this book at the beach, I was upset that people had to die. I mean, look, I love murder and mayhem just as much as the next person, but it was the suffering of everyone that took me aback. Please note that this is not a criticism of Cunningham's work, but more of a personal exploration for why I felt the way I did. In fact, I would say it's a testament to Cunningham's writing that I was so bothered in the first place. I always say that if you care enough to have feelings about a story or a character, even if you dislike them, then it's the sign of a strong writer and a strong work.

I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Cunningham this past fall in conversation about his new novel at Queens College. He had some really great things to say, but what stayed with me the most was his discussion regarding how he sees his characters. He said that he pictures his characters vividly, and sometimes he will be walking down the street and he will see someone who looks exactly as he pictured one of his characters. He also said in response to a question from the moderator that even after such heavy-hitters were cast as these three women in the movie version of this particular book, he has two versions of who the characters are in his mind: his original depiction and then these fabulous counterparts in the movie. I realized I feel the same; that it doesn't matter to me if I see the movie first or not; I still have a picture of how I see the characters in my own head.

Hard copy for purchase below.

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