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.