Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours is that rare combination: a smashing lliterary tour de force and an utterly invigorating reading experience. If this book does not make you jump up from the sofa, looking at life and literature in new ways, check to see if you have a pulse.
Anne Prichard - USA Today
[W]hen a novelist has the right stuff, he can endow literally any subject with truth, poetry, and intelligence....The Hours is a meditation on age and decay, on sanity and insanity, on the nature of the creative act, on the ineradicable love for life that continues even in the face of a longing for death.
The New Criterion
What, he essentially asks in The Hours, is it like to grow up and be older, to succeed and fail, to have friends and lovers and children and parents who delight and disappoint, provide joy and sorrow?.... Aficionados will undoubtedly relish the countless parallels between a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway and a day in the life of Clarissa Vaughan.
Michael Cunningham's new novel, The Hours, is neither an homage nor a sequel to Mrs. Dalloway. It is, rather, an attempt at osmosis with the spirit of Virginia Woolf. Cunningham, the author of such well-received novels as A Home at the End of the World (1990) and Flesh and Blood (1995), has even borrowed the title that Woolf had originally intended for her elegant story about a single June day in 1923 when Clarissa Dalloway gives a party and World War I veteran Septimus Smith cracks up. The Hours, is a feat of literary acrobatics, yet in the end does not affect us as profoundly as Mrs. Dalloway. The Hours is a variation on a theme, and it's the original melody rather than the contemporary arrangement that's most memorable.
In Woolf's original, the setting is London and many of the characters are members of the British upper-middle class, just a rung below the aristocracy. Septimus' madness reflects the primary social ill of the day — the debilitated physical and mental state of many World War I veterans. Woolf's characters follow the sexual codes of the 1920s bourgeoisie. Clarissa's first passion is her friend Sally Seton, but the question of a committed lesbian relationship would never enter her mind. She rejects her more ardent suitor, Peter Walsh, in favor of a bloodless marriage to the loving but staid Richard Dalloway. Now Peter, still struck by her, turns up after years in India, just in time to attend her party.
Curiously, Cunningham opens The Hours with a chilling description of Virginia Woolf's suicide in 1941. It doesn't feel like a part of the novel that follows, which consists of three distinct narratives that overlap one another. The third takes place at the end of the 20th century. The setting is Manhattan, and the contemporary social ill is AIDS. The characters, rather than bourgeois, are members of America's artistic and academic elite. They may be rich by the world's standards, but hardly "New York rich."
Richard Brown is an award-winning novelist and poet, physically and mentally ravaged by AIDS. (He may put some readers in mind of Harold Brodkey.) Clarissa Vaughan, whose first passion was for the bisexual Richard years earlier, has settled down with the woman she loves — Sally, a public television producer. Louis, the Peter Walsh stand-in and once part of a ménage à trois with Richard and Clarissa, is back in New York just in time for the party Clarissa is throwing for Richard, to celebrate a literary award he has won.
Cunningham's writing has a luminous quality. One can easily imagine Woolf describing her sister's world as "the carnival wagon that bears Vanessa — the whole gaudy party of her, that vast life, the children and paints and lovers, the brilliantly cluttered house — [that] has passed on into the night." He reinterprets characters, gives them his own spin. Religious fanatic Miss Kilman becomes Mary Krull, a politically hardcore lesbian, as much a party pooper (of the whole human parade as well as Clarissa's little celebration) as the original. Pulling off this clever literary accomplishment shows us that the talented Michael Cunningham isn't at all afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Georgia Jones-Davis - Salon
At first blush, the structural and thematic conceits of this novel — three interwoven novellas in varying degrees connected to Virginia Woolf — seem like the stuff of a graduate student's pipe dream: a great idea in the dorm room that betrays a lack of originality. But as soon as one dips into Cunningham's prologue, in which Woolf's suicide is rendered with a precise yet harrowing matter-of-factness ("She hurries from the house, wearing a coat too heavy for the weather. It is 1941. She has left a note for Leonard, and another for Vanessa."), the reader becomes completely entranced. This book more than fulfills the promise of Cunningham's 1990 debut, A Home at the End of the World, while showing that sweep does not necessarily require the sprawl of his second book, Flesh and Blood. In alternating chapters, the three stories unfold: "Mrs. Woolf," about Virginia's own struggle to find an opening for Mrs. Dalloway in 1923; "Mrs. Brown," about one Laura Brown's efforts to escape, somehow, an airless marriage in California in 1949 while, coincidentally, reading Mrs. Dalloway; and "Mrs. Dalloway," which is set in 1990s Greenwich Village and concerns Clarissa Vaughan's preparations for a party for her gay — and dying — friend, Richard, who has nicknamed her Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham's insightful use of the historical record concerning Woolf in her household outside London in the 1920s is matched by his audacious imagining of her inner life and his equally impressive plunges into the lives of Laura and Clarissa.
The book would have been altogether absorbing had it been linked only thematically. However, Cunningham cleverly manages to pull the stories even more intimately togther in the closing pages. Along the way, rich and beautifully nuanced scenes follow one upon the other: Virginia, tired and weak, irked by the early arrival of headstrong sister Vanessa, her three children and the dead bird they bury in the backyard; Laura's afternoon escape to an L.A. hotel to read for a few hours; Clarissa's anguished witnessing of her friend's suicidal jump down an airshaft, rendered with unforgettable detail. The overall effect of this book is twofold. First, it makes a reader hunger to know all about Woolf, again; readers may be spooked at times, as Woolf's spirit emerges in unexpected ways, but hers is an abiding presence, more about living than dying. Second, and this is the gargantuan accomplishment of this small book, it makes a reader believe in the possibility and depth of a communality based on great literature, literature that has shown people how to live and what to ask of life.
Clarissa Dalloway certainly is a popular lady nowadays, with a recent movie and now a new book based on her life. She is, of course, the heroine of Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel about a day in the life of a proper but uninspired wife and the tragic event that changes her. In this new work by Cunningham (Flesh and Blood, LJ 4/15/95), that day's events are reflected and reinterpreted in the interwoven stories of three women: Laura, a reluctant mother and housewife of the 1940s; Clarissa, an editor in the 1990s and caretaker of her best friend, an AIDS patient; and Woolf herself, on the verge of writing the aforementioned novel. Certain themes flow from story to story: paths not taken, the need for independence, meditations on mortality. Woolf fans will enjoy identifying these scenes in a different context, but it's only at the end that the author engages more than just devoted followers with a surprisingly touching coda that stresses the common bonds the characters share. Given Woolf's popularity, this is a book all libraries should consider, with an exhortation to visit Mrs. Dalloway as well. —Marc A. Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., PA
Steeped in the work and life of Virginia Woolf, Cunningham (Flesh and Blood) offers up a sequel to the work of the great author, complete with her own pathos and brilliance. Cunningham tells three tales, interweaving them in cunning ways and, after the model of Mrs. Dalloway itself, allowing each only a day in the life of its central character. First comes Woolf herself, in June of 1923 (after a prologue describing her 1941 suicide). In Woolf's day (as in her writings), little "happens," though the profundities are great: Virginia works (on Mrs. Dalloway); her sister Vanessa visits; Virginia holds her madness at bay (just barely); and, over dinner, she convinces husband Leonard to move back to London from suburban Richmond. In the "Mrs. Brown" sections, a young woman named Sally Brown reads the novel Mrs. Dalloway, this in suburban L.A. (in 1949), where Sally has a three-year-old son, is pregnant again, and, preparing her husband's birthday celebration, fights off her own powerful despair.
Finally, and at greatest length, is the present-time day in June of Mrs. Dalloway, this being one Clarissa Vaughan of West 10th Street, New York City, years ago nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway by her then-lover and now-AIDS-victim Richard Brown — who, on this day in June, is to receive a major prize for poetry. Like the original Mrs. Dalloway, this Clarissa is planning a party (for Richard), goes out for flowers, observes the day, sees someone famous, thinks about life, time, the past, and love ("Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other"). Much in fact does happen; much is lost, hoped for, feared, sometimes recovered ("It will serve as this afternoon's manifestation of the central mystery itself"), all in gorgeous, Woolfian, shimmering, perfectly-observed prose. Hardly a false note in an extraordinary carrying on of a true greatness that doubted itself.
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