Review: The Hours by Michael Cunningham

PICADOR 2002/1998

The Hours tells the story of three women: Virginia Woolf, beginning to write Mrs. Dalloway as she recuperates in a London suburb with her husband in 1923; Clarissa Vaughan, beloved friend of an acclaimed poet dying from AIDS, who in modern-day New York is planning a party in his honor; and Laura Brown, in a 1949 Los Angeles suburb, who slowly begins to feel the constraints of a perfect family and home. By the end of the novel, these three stories intertwine in remarkable ways, and finally come together in an act of subtle and haunting grace.

I read and reviewed Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf earlier this year, and to be completely honest, I didn’t really get it. I only got a glimpse of the treasure that was hiding under the surface, but I guess the style of writing and the unfamiliar plot made the book difficult to comprehend. However, I know many people who absolutely adore Mrs. Dalloway and so I was determined to give the book another chance. So when I recently found The Hours sitting on the exchange bookshelf, and having heard great reviews about it, decided to try a different approach to the story.

The Hours features three women in different times: Virginia Woolf in 1920s London, Mrs. Brown, a suburban housewife in the 1940s who is enthralled with Mrs. Dalloway, and Clarissa Vaughan in the 1990s New York, preparing to host a party. We follow their lives in the span of one day and at first they all seem very different. However, as the story progresses some similarities start to appear. The literary connection to Woolf’s novel stretches through time and gives the book a deep, heartfelt element of familiarity but also surprise.

I really enjoyed The Hours. I loved Cunningham’s style of writing that reflected Woolf’s stream of consciousness, but was still distinctly different. In the beginning of the book, it took some time to adjust to the changing of point of views and the plethora of characters in each woman’s life, but that was only a small issue. Overall, I felt that the book deepened my understanding of the original novel, but that it wasn’t completely subsided by it. The Hours has it own story to tell, and it is not merely a replica. I applaud Cunningham for the courage that it must have taken to tackle this classic, and I truly think it is worthy of the Pulitzer it won in 1999. I recommend this book to readers who loved Mrs. Dalloway as well as to those who struggled to understand it. However, I encourage you to read Mrs. Dalloway before picking up this book – otherwise you’ll only spoil yourself.


There is just this for consolation: an hour here or there, when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined , though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning, we hope, more than anything, for more. Heaven only knows why we love it so.


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