THE HOURS by Michael Cunningham

At the end of I Remember Nothing, Nora Ephron listed Pride and Prejudice among the things she would miss. My Miss-List will include The Hours by Michael Cunningham.

I came across Cunningham’s version of Mrs. Dalloway around the time I let go of writing plays to explore the mysteries of prose. Cunningham mesmerized me with the beauty of his sentences—I often read them three or four times—and dreamed of orchestrating words so the rhythm and imagery would plunge the essence of each character into the reader’s soul.

Cunningham’s characters, Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Woolf lingered with me until I had no other choice than to read Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Once finished I reread The Hours and discovered Cunningham’s work was more captivating the second time. I have just completed the novel for the fifth time. The richness of the world he creates for each of his characters and their individual pain becomes a second skin I don’t wish to shed, and yet when I do, my gratitude for the experience parallel’s that of Mrs. Dalloway.

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. 

The Hours travels through time to examine the lives of three women, all bound to Woolf’s character Clarissa Dalloway. These women are separated by time and locations that are captured with hardly more than a brushstroke, while establishing the playing field of conflict within which each woman lives.

It’s the city’s crush and heave that move you; its intimacy, its endless life. 

But this is the new world, the rescued world—there’s not much room for idleness. So much has been risked, and lost; so many have died. 

Although it is among the best of them, Richmond is, finally and undeniably, a suburb, only that, with all the word implies about window boxes and hedges; about wives walking pugs; about clocks striking the hours in empty rooms. 

Much like the characters in Erika Robuck’s Fallen Beauty, Cunningham’s characters appear distinct, yet are linked by a common thread. Mrs. Woolf, Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Dalloway struggle to find peace with the hope, sadness and sense of displacement they experience. While their methods of coping are unique, their struggles fuse them across time, as if each one has been reincarnated into the next. And if shared turmoil isn’t intriguing enough, Cunningham makes certain the reader stays engaged through the characters points-of-view. Each woman sees the miniature and big picture simultaneously. They are at one with themselves, and an objective observer ministering to the fragile doubting woman in the moment. In this way, Cunningham forces the reader to see themselves in these women’s lives.

All the man and boy required of her is her presence and, of course, her love. She conquers desire to go quietly back upstairs, to her bed and book. She conquers her irritation at the sound of her husband’s voice, saying something to Richie about napkins (why does his voice remind her sometimes of a potato being grated?).

The handling of point-of-view seems as natural as breathing for Cunningham. He is able to shift from one character to the next with no more effort than it takes to switch from looking out the front windshield to the driver’s side window. His execution makes you believe anyone can do it, but it is a mastered skill; or maybe an innate gift and he holds the key.

Clarissa says to Julia, “Take care of her.”

Fool, Mary Krull thinks. Smug, self-satisfied witch. She corrects herself Clarissa Vaughn is not the enemy. Clarissa Vaughn is only deluded, neither more nor less than that. […]

Fraud, Clarissa thinks. You’ve fooled my daughter, but you don’t fool me. I know a conquistador when I see one. I know all about making a splash. 

I was trained in the theatre, where inner monologues are part of the research and life force actors create so they may successfully bring a character to life. And still, whenever I read The Hours, I can’t help wonder how an inner monologue can be so fascinating? Why do so many books shy away from the interior rooms of characters? Why are writers and readers enamored with action upon action and hooks that feel like atomic explosions? Cunningham’s willingness to allow his characters to breathe into each moment gives rise to observations that are precise, objective and infused with an emotional undercurrent that stays with the reader.

She has aged dramatically, just this year, as if a layer of air has leaked out from under her skin. She’s grown craggy and worn. She’s begun to look as if she’s carved from very porous, gray-white marble. She is still regal. Still exquisitely formed, still possessed of her formidable lunar radiance, but she is suddenly no longer beautiful. 

After six readings the events within these pages hold no surprises and yet, each time the climax arrives, the truth grips and sears my heart unexpectedly. This is the result of how finely Cunningham orchestrates his chosen words.

The air itself seems to have changed, to have come slightly apart; as if the atmosphere were palpably made of substance and its opposite. 

In a world driven by excess, where cities are lit up by neon instead of gaslight or stars, and our senses are bombarded by ads, video clips, tweets and sound upon sound, it’s reassuring to know a book exists to show that a single glance, flower or hour can be enough.

Step into the quiet, life pulse of The Hours.