Is there a more exquisite novel than The Hours by Michael Cunningham? Its premise is ingenious, the prose beautifully nuanced and its trio of female characters deftly and cleverly intertwined. I loved the film version but to say I adored the book is an understatement.
In The Hours, Cunningham weaves together the lives of three women separated by decades and geography, telling their story through the events of just one day for each person.
In June 1923, Virginia Woolf wrestles with the opening of her new novel. Her working title is The Hours ( it will be published as Mrs Dalloway.) She persuades her husband that her feelings of depression will be eased by relinquishing their Richmond country life for the hubbub of London.
In 1949, Sally Brown, a young wife and mother fights her own feelings of despair at the monotony of her life in a Los Angeles suburb. She makes a cake for her husband’s birthday, leaves her son with a childminder and escapes to a hotel to read Mrs Dalloway.
On a summer’s day in 1990, Clarissa Vaughan steps out of her Greenwich village apartment. She “has flowers to buy and a party to give.” It will be a celebration for her ex lover Richard who has won a prestigious poetry prize.
Party. Flowers. Clarissa. Sound familiar?
We are of course in the realm of Mrs Dalloway with a re-enactment of its famous opening line:
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
Cunningham’s section on Virginia Woolf in fact comes to an end with Woolf writing that very sentence. And its how he begins the section focused on Mrs Brown as she lies on her bed reading, what else but Mrs Dalloway.
This is one of the many connections Cunningham makes to Woolf’s novel and to its author. If you know the original book, you could easily spend a few hours picking up on the references.
As an example. Woolf has her character startled by the sound of a car backfiring as she walks through the streets of London. She thinks she spots someone famous in the car: “Was it the Prince of Wales’s, the Queen’s, the Prime Minister’s?” In The Hours, Clarissa (who by the way is nicknamed Mrs Dalloway by Richard) is distracted by a loud noise from a film set. And then she spots someone famous emerging from a trailer “Meryl Streep? Vanessa Redgrave?”
Homage to Virginia Woolf
Recognising these allusions is great fun but Cunningham isn’t using them simply to show off his intimate knowledge with the text of Mrs Dalloway. His book isn’t a re-creation of the earlier work but more of a homage to Woolf’s examination of one woman and how she questions her capacity for to be happy.
The inter-textuality is impressive but so too is the use of imagery and metaphor throughout The Hours. The yellow flowers Virginia Woolf places around the grave of a small bird, are echoed in the yellow flowers Laura Brown ices onto her cake and the blossoms bought by Clarissa’s lover.
Throughout the book we’re treated to some beautifully nuanced and unforgettable scenes. Laura’s afternoon escape to a Los Angeles hotel; Virginia’s ritual burial of a small bird and Clarissa’s anguish when she witnesses Richard’s death.
Struggle to Find Meaning
Every woman’s life is delicately examined, showing them striving to find meaning in their lives. If I had to pick a favourite it would be Laura Brown, a woman torn between her deep love for her son and her resentment against the confining nature of motherhood and marriage. She tries hard to be the perfect wife, putting on a false face of happiness in front of her son, but deep down is is desperately unhappy.
Reading for her is not about losing herself or escaping from her reality, but about discovering her true nature. She knows she should be getting started with her daily chores but instead she settles back against the pillows.
One more page, she decides, just one more. … She will permit herself another minute here, in bed, before entering the day. She will allow herself just a little more time. She is taken by a wave of feeling, a sea-swell, that rises from under her breast and buoys her, floats her gently, as if she were a sea creature thrown back from the sand where it had beached itself – as if she had been returned from a realm of crushing gravity to her true medium, the suck and swell of saltwater, that weightless brilliance.
Isn’t this a tremendous illustration of the transformative power of reading?
I could go on at length about the multiple ways in which I was enthralled by The Hours. But I don’t want to bore you all so I’ll just say that this is fiction at its best, a story of humanity related insightfully and sensitively. Simply superb.
It’s time for #6degrees once more. Let’s hope I’m more successful this month than I was in January when I couldn’t get beyond book number 3 in the chain.
Guess what – yet again I’ve not read, nor even heard of the book with which we’re meant to be starting this month’s chain.
It’s Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.
When I saw the title initially my brain scrambled it with the Flashman series from the 1960s. So I started thinking of books featuring other rakes and rogues. I got halfway through the chain before I realised the mistake…..
Let’s start again shall we.
Taffy Brodesser-Ankner’s name happens to connect nicely to my home country. “Taffy’ is a ‘friendly’ generic description of a person from Wales (a bit like calling New Zealanders “kiwis”.) No-one really knows how the term Taffy came about – it might have been a mangling of the common Welsh name Dafydd but it could equally have originated with people who lived near the river Taff.
Whatever the origin it means I get the chance to promote an author from Wales.
I can’t do better than choose The Cove by Cynan Jones, not only because this is a superb novella but Cynan is a very Welsh first name (it’s the Welsh word for chief in case you’re interested). The Cove features a kayaker badly injured by lightening, clinging to the hope he can get back to safety and the woman he loves.
The watery setting links me very nicely to Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It’s a strange tale about a young boy called Pi who is adrift in a lifeboat in the middle of an ocean. Though he’s the sole human survivor of a shipwreck, he is sharing the lifeboat with a hyena and a male Bengal tiger.
The novel ends on a note of mystery because Pi gives two versions of how he managed to survive. It’s up the reader to decide which to believe.
As an arch deceiver, Pi could go head to head with the protagonist in my next linked book: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle . Mary Katherine Blackwood (known as Merricat) is rather a minx, leading us a merry dance with her clues about how the members of her family ended up poisoned by arsenic. In true Gothic tradition this is a novel that takes place in a rambling ruin of a house.
Bly Manor, the setting for Henry James’ The Turn of The Screw isn’t a ruin but just like the Castle, it’s a place of mystery. Shortly after a young governess arrives at the isolated country manor house, she begins to suspect that the two children in her care are tormented by ghosts. Or are they? We have only her word for it since no-one else in the house sees these figures and the one person to whom she confides her suspicions is highly sceptical.
The first readers of this short story viewed it purely as a spooky story but new interpretations began emerging in the 1930s. The question now is whether James wrote not a simple, but effective ghost story, but a far more complex and disturbing psychological tale of delusion and insanity.
Let’s stick with governesses who are misunderstood.
Is Jane Eyre a heart-warming novel of a poor governess who overcomes challenges and obstacles but finally finds happiness in the arms of Mr Rochester? Or is she the alter ego of mad Bertha, his first wife whom he locks up in the attic? Is Jane Eyre a sorry figure upon whom other people like to trample? Or is she, as feminist critics maintain, a champion for the rights of women to have a life of their own choosing?
Now I could take the easy path here and link to the author of a twentieth century landmark work of literary criticism. But as much as I appreciate Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she was standing on the shoulders of another giant.
So let’s make the final link in my chain a much older yet still ground- breaking work of feminist literature.
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in part as a reaction to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, published in late 1790 which argued that religious and civil liberties were part of a man’s birth right.
Wollstonecraft went one step further, and, argued for women’s rights to be on the same footing as men’s. Her work was discredited when, after her death, details emerged of her unorthodox lifestyle.
And so we’ve come to the end of the chain. I didn’t realise when I chose Wollstonecraft that there was any connection to Fleishman Is In Trouble. But now I see that it’s been called “a powerful feminist book”. The circle is complete…..
Ayunda @ Tea and Paperbacks tagged me for the new idea she dreamed up. Not sure I can do the questions justice but here goes.
One: Reading on the couch or on the bed?
Most of my reading is done in bed. Ever since I was a child I’ve had to have some quiet reading time to myself before falling asleep. I have to be absolutely zonked not to read (I have been known to fall asleep with book in hand).
Two: Male main character or female main character?
I know sitting on the fence is not part of the rules but I absolutely have no preference either way on this point.
Three: Sweet snacks or salty snacks when reading?
If I’m reading in bed then I’m not eating full stop. But when I read during the daytime – if I’m on holiday or on a flight somewhere, then my snack of choice has to involve chocolate. The more chocolate the better….
Four: Trilogies or quartets?
Since I can remember reading only one quartet and no trilogies then its going to have to be quartet. My one and only venture here is Paul Scott’s the Raj Quartet which I love. He then went on to write a fifth novel Staying On which set in the same hill station in India as the quartet and featuring some of the lesser known characters and is superb.
Five: First person point of view or third person point of view?
Sitting on the fence time again. The best novels for me are the ones where ostensibly its a first person narrator but then they refer to themselves as if they are a different person so you get the benefit of both first and third person narrative. Take a look at Jane Eyre if you want an example
Six: Reading at night or in the morning?
Mornings? What are they?
Seriously, I am either not awake enough in the mornings to do more than scan the newspaper and peruse a few emails OR I am running late for work so don’t have time.
Seven: Libraries or bookstores?
I’m biased here. I love public libraries so much I’ve been campaigning for the last year to save the one in my village from closure. From June it looks like I will be helping to run it as a volunteer service.
Eight: Books that make you laugh or make you cry?
Oh cry for sure. Books which are meant to be funny often leave me frustrated because it seems the author is having all the fun rather than me. Or they are trying to hard.
I love the black covers of the Penguin Classics – not so much because of the colour but because they always feature an original work of art. Reading these editions makes the experience even more delightful.
Ten: Character driven or plot driven stories?
Probably character driven. I do read the occasional crime novel which by its nature is focused on the plot but I tend to forget them easily whereas the character based stories I can recall more easily (especially if I enjoyed it). I’m reading one of the ultimate character-driven novels right now – Mrs Dalloway. Fascinating to see how she spins a whole novel out of one day in which not that much really happens.
Now its your turn
I don’t pass along tags but if these questions interest you, feel free to join in.