The Hours by Michael Cunningham: Absolute Perfection

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.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

23 thoughts on “The Hours by Michael Cunningham: Absolute Perfection

  • June 18, 2020 at 5:50 pm
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    I read this a long time ago and purchased a copy recently to read it again. I enjoyed my re-read of Mrs. Dalloway far more than I thought I would so I’m definitely looking forward to this.

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    • June 18, 2020 at 11:32 pm
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      I enjoyed Mrs Dalloway much more the second time around too. I suspect a third reading will prove even more rewarding

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  • May 26, 2020 at 2:37 pm
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    It’s been so long since I read the book or watched the film but they both remain with me vividly. I have promised myself a revisit many times. Hopefully your excellent review is the push to make that happen!

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  • May 24, 2020 at 4:50 pm
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    I recall enjoying this too. Novelisations involving real people (writers, in particularly) are not normally my thing, but in this instance it’s very well-judged. Glad you liked it too. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

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    • May 25, 2020 at 3:56 pm
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      There are a few of us here it seems that don’t much care for fictionalisations of real people 🙂 But all of us have made the exception for this book so clearly it has to be a good one..

      Reply
  • May 23, 2020 at 11:56 am
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    I adored The Hours! It’s a long time since I read it but your review has reminded me all over again why I loved it. I’ll have to dig out my old copy and re-read it one of these days.

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    • May 23, 2020 at 3:50 pm
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      It’s the kind of book that you can re-read and enjoy the second time just as much as the first read – not something I often feel about contemporary fiction

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  • May 23, 2020 at 10:03 am
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    I read this when it first came out absolutely loved it. You’ve made me wonder if I brought my copy with me when I moved or if it was one of the books that I had to let go. If it was, I think I’m going to be looking for another copy!

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    • May 23, 2020 at 3:51 pm
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      There are very very few books I keep now once I’ve read them. This is going to be one of those rare occurrences.

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  • May 23, 2020 at 7:38 am
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    I love this, weirdly, as I don’t usually like real people being novelised. It’s done so well. I even saw the film and didn’t mind it, which is quite shocking! Cunningham is such a good writer, too; I’ve had my ups and downs with him but this is a good one.

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    • May 23, 2020 at 3:52 pm
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      I’m also not that keen on fictionalised real people but this was so well done I think it added to my understanding of Virginia

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  • May 23, 2020 at 6:26 am
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    Thank you for this excellent review! “The Hours” is one of my favourite novels, and I love the movie adaptation, as well! Cunningham has composed an exquisite tribute to Virginia Woolf, accentuating her genius and creating a masterpiece of his own simultaneously. I have also felt a deep connection with Laura Brown’s character and her unfathomable desire to escape – the author has brilliantly captured the utter desolation many women face in their daily lives.

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    • May 23, 2020 at 3:54 pm
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      That’s another clever aspect isn’t it – that he uses some of Virginia’s style of writing yet it isn’t just a copy – he brings something new to the table

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  • May 23, 2020 at 5:29 am
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    I’ve not read it or seen the film but the premise of this story sounds really interesting.

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    • May 23, 2020 at 3:55 pm
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      I can’t recommend this highly enough and for once the film is up to the task of adaptation

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  • May 23, 2020 at 2:02 am
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    Yes, a lovely book. I was surprised actually, I’m not overly fond of author’s rewriting some other author’s book, but this time it worked.

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    • May 23, 2020 at 3:57 pm
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      I have a strong aversion to prequels or sequels to existing books or any novel which takes a character from another novel and spins a new story. I may be treating the author unfairly but it always feels to me a lazy way of coming up with a story because the original author has done most of the work for you. This one is rather different I felt, it wasn’t just a -re-telling/re-imagination but a fresh angle entirely

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      • May 24, 2020 at 7:57 am
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        Yes, that’s how I feel. Most of the time, it seems to me, those books are written by authors who don’t really have anything interesting to say, so they piggy-back off other people’s ideas.

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        • May 24, 2020 at 4:04 pm
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          So that’s two of us at least in this little camp….

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