Jul 13, 2010

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Dear Ana from 2001,

You have just finished reading Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, sitting on a chair outside in the spring sunshine and listening to your brand new Beth Orton CD on your Discman (ha – remember Discmans?). You loved the book, and you suspect, correctly, that it might be a new addition to your list of all-time favourites. If I could write you an actual letter, I’d tell you this: please don’t wait nine years to read Mrs Dalloway. I urge you not to remain blind to the very obvious fact that if you loved this book, you’ll surely also love Woolf’s novel. Also, you should re-read books more often. Don’t be afraid you won’t love them as much as you remember. The reward of rediscovering an old favourite is more than worth the risk.


Ana from 2010

Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-winning The Hours is a novel build around Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. The three parallel storylines focus on Woolf herself at the time she was writing her novel; on Mrs Brown, a woman more or less forced by circumstances into the role of a suburban wife and mother in 1950’s America, and who’s reading Woolf’s novel and feels crushed by her everyday existence; and on Clarissa Vaughan, who, like her namesake, starts her day by buying flowers for a party she’s throwing that evening, in honour of her friend Richard, a poet dying of AIDS. Like Mrs Dalloway, The Hours is set in a single day. And like Woolf’s masterpiece, it’s one of those short but immensely rich and layered novels that seems to miraculously contain all of life, at both its most tragic and its most exhilarating.

Other things the two novels have in common include the brilliant use of the stream of consciousness technique; the stunning writing; the themes of mental illness, depression, suicide, memory and time; the thrilling beauty they manage to evoke alongside the bleakest moments; the LGBTQ themes, which are of course much more overt in Cunningham’s work; and the fact that ultimately both novels celebrate life in all its messy glory. Having finally read Mrs Dalloway made me appreciate what Michael Cunningham achieves here so much more. The Hours is both unique and brilliantly evocative of Virginia Woolf’s writing; it’s both a homage to and a rewriting of a previous novel, and a complete work of art in its own right.

About the LGBTQ themes, it’s interesting to note that the time period in which these three women live – all of them lesbians or bisexual – determines the way they deal with their sexuality and the overall course of their lives. There’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to gay rights in our days, of course, but it’s clear that the longer ago these characters lived, the more repressed their lives were. In the early twentieth-century, Virginia Woolf had little to no choices, and in the end she takes her own life. In the 1950’s, Laura Brown lives a suffocating domestic existence, with Germaine Greer's insight into the numbness she’s experiencing still far in the future; she also struggles with her desire for her friend Kitty and contemplates suicide. And in the 1990’s, Clarissa lives openly with her partner Sally. Though her life is also tinged by tragedy, of all three women she’s the one best able to love and savour life, New York, and a moment in June.

What could be conceived of as mental illness, then, is shown to be the product of the very different social circumstances in which these women lived. This doesn’t lessen the reality of Virginia Woolf’s or Laura Brown’s depression, of course, nor does it reduce it to sexual repression. But it does help contextualise their anguish, and it moves the responsibility away from these women as individuals and into a wider social context. It’s very easy to dismiss women like Laura Brown in particular as “selfish”, “ungrateful” or “damaged” because they’re unable to be happy with a husband, a child, and a house to look after. It’s also very easy to ignore just what might be lurking behind their despair, be it a matter of sexual orientation or of being dismissed, condescended to, and forced into the tight and neat box of gender roles. Or, as the case may be, of both.

The title “The Hours” is reminiscent of Mrs Brown and Mrs Woolf’s feeling that time itself had become burdensome – and yet for all the dark despair of this feeling, Cunningham never loses sight of the fact that these very same hours may be full of promises and possibilities. This is a heartbreaking novel, and yet somehow it still manages to be (dreadful expression, I know, but apt here) so life-affirming. It’s full of hope; of hunger and desire for time itself, for more of it, even if it inevitably comes with dark and burdensome hours. They’re the price we pay for those other hours, and despite everything we do it willingly, eagerly. The Hours is a novel that acknowledges the frailty and the tragedy of our existences, but also its preciousness, windows and sleeping pills and rivers and all. And I can’t say how much I love it for that.

Favourite passages (this is long, I know, but there are far too many perfect ones, and I couldn’t leave any of the following out):
Still, she loves the world for being rude and indestructible, and she knows other people must love it too, poor as well as rich, though no one speaks specifically of the reasons. Why else do we struggle to go on living, no matter how compromised, no matter how harmed? Even if we’re further gone than Richard; even if we’re fleshless, blazing with lesions, shitting in the sheets; still, we want desperately to live. It has to do with all this, she thinks. Wheels buzzing on concrete, the roil and shock of it; sheets of bright sprat blowing from the fountain as young shirtless men toss a Frisbee and vendors (from Peru, from Guatemala) send pungent, meaty smoke up from their quilted silver carts; old men and women straining after the sun from their benches; speaking softly to each other, shaking their heads; the bleat of car horns and the strum of guitars (that ragged group over there, three boys and a girl, could they possibly be playing ‘Eight Miles High’?); leaves shimmering on the trees; a spotted dog chasing pigeons and a passing radio playing ‘Always Love You’ as the woman in the dark dress stands under the arch singing iiiii.

There is true art in it, this command of tea and dinner tables; this animating correctness. Men may congratulate themselves for writing truly and passionately about the movements of nations; they may consider war and the search for God to be great literature’s only subjects; but if men’s standing in the world could be toppled by an ill-advised choice of hat, English literature would be dramatically changed.

It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and Clarissa is still sometimes shocked, more than thirty years later, to realise that it was happiness; that the entire experience lay in a kiss and a walk, the anticipation of dinner and a book. The dinner is by now forgotten; Lessing has been long overshadowed by other writers; and even the sex, once she and Richard reached that point, was ardent but awkward, unsatisfying, more kindly than passionate. What lives undimmed in Clarrisa’s mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other.

Is this what it’s like to go crazy? She’d never imagined it like this—when she’d thought of someone (a woman like herself) losing her mind, she’d imagined shrieks and wails, hallucinations; but at that moment it had seemed clear that there was another way, far quieter; a way that was numb and hopeless, flat, so much so that an emotion as strong as sorrow would have been a relief.

If anything happens to Clarissa she, Sally, will go on living but will not, exactly, survive. She will not be all right. What she wants to say has to do not only with joy but with the penetrating, constant fear that is joy’s other half. She can bear the thought of her own death but cannot bear the thought of Clarissa’s. This love of theirs, with its reassuring domesticity and its easy silences, its permanence, has yoked Sally directly to the machinery of mortality itself. Now there is a loss beyond imagining. Now there is a cord she can follow from this moment, walking towards the subway on the Upper East Side, through tomorrow and the next day and the next, all the way to the end of her life and the end of Clarissa’s.

We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep—it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s 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 that 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.
They read it too:
Bird Brain(ed) Blog, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Another Cookie Crumbles, Medieval Bookworm, It’s All About Me, Sophisticated Dorkiness, The Heart Rang Like Glass, Lakeside Musings

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. Ah, lovely review.

    The Hours is one of my all-time favourites too and one I really should reread soon. Michael Cunningham also has a new book coming out this year, if I remember correctly.

    I think I may have told you this is in the past but I wasn't overly-enamoured by Mrs Dalloway first time around; I read it for class in 2000 and struggled. I then read The Hours and it slotted into place, reread Mrs Dalloway and grew to love it too.

  2. "The Hours" was the first working title V. Woolf gave to the book which was later published as Mrs Dalloway.

    I didn't like/understand this book the first time I read it. Maybe I was too young. I also hadn't read Mrs Dalloway, so I couldn't appreciate the similarities.

    I did love it, though, when I read it a few years ago. Wow.

  3. I loved the letter you wrote yourself :) And I need to reread more as well. However, there are so many new to me books that I'd still like to read and they often get in the way of rereading. The Hours is one of the books I still have to read. I'm looking forward to it, because it seems so many loved the book.

  4. I have been lurking alot and not commented until I saw this wonderful review of The Hours a book I have still yet to read.

    Sometimes I curse myself for not having read the book before I saw the film as I will have Streep, Kidman and Moore in my head whilst reading the book. Maybe once the movie fades a little in my mind that will be the time to try and read it!

  5. I haven't read Mrs Dalloway yet, so I should probably do that before I get too interested in The Hours! The book itself sounds fantastic, and I do like that cover, also.

  6. I don't know. Maybe it was seeing the movie that was based on this that affected me, since the movie turned out to be my all-time favorite, but I couldn't stand this book when I read it ~2003ish. It went along with a bunch of modern adult books that disappointed me both in writing and in content, along with The Shipping News and a few others that I can't recall offhand. I was trying so hard to find something modern I could read, but all these books disappointed. I do wonder if I'd feel differently if I read The Hours today, but I'm afraid I wouldn't and don't want to risk what would then feel like wasting my time, you know? I just hear people talking about how well this is written and I get so confused, because that's not at all the impression I got at the time. :(

  7. I loved The Hours. I. Must. Read. Mrs. Dalloway. I, too, loved your letter. I am awful at rereading, even with the best intentions.

  8. I have never read The Hours or anything by Woolfe. I think I am just really intimidated by her writing, but after reading this review, I want to go out and grab a copy of Mrs. Dalloway. You make it sound totally worth the effort, and dare I say it...even a little accessible!

  9. Wow, sounds great. I was actually looking at this on BookMooch yesterday (because as you can see from that lovely cover it is one of the Perennial Collections which apparently I've begun collecting!) but it was 'not to my country'. Your review has convinced me that I need to read this, and to get a BookMooch angel for it!

  10. I truly enjoyed my time spent reading The Hours. Having a copy of Mrs. Dalloway makes me now rethink about reading The Hours again and then following that up with Dalloway...thanks for the letter to yourself..it was inspiring!!

  11. I absolutely loved The Hours but hated Mrs Dalloway. Go figure! :-)

  12. I absolutely loved The Hours but hated Mrs Dalloway. Go figure! :-)

  13. This is probably still my favourite book from this year (out of 37-odd books). Read it after reading Mrs. Dalloway, and was absolutely blown away.

    Love the review, and love the favourite passages quoted.

    I've been recommending this to anyone and everyone, so it pleases me immensely that you liked it as well.

  14. I loved The Hours too. I remember reading it in college and just being enamored with it. I didn't love Mrs. Dalloway, but I think that's one of those books that would improve on rereading now that I have a bit more life experience under my belt. Great review!

  15. Great book!

    Wonderfully thoughtful review!

  16. There is a big Woolf shaped hole in my reading which simply must be addressed.

    I love re-reading books and do it far too much.

  17. Love your post - such book love radiating through it! :-)

    I have a complicated relationship with The Hours - Mrs. Dalloway is my favorite novel of all time and my take on it isn't exactly the same as Cunningham's and I think I might be too close to/invested in my angle to fully appreciate his. I did enjoy the book, but felt like the emphasis on Woolf's mental illness perpetuated many of the tired cliches about her - the gloomy, delicate lady novelist who killed herself.

    Granted, it does tie in with the themes of Mrs. Dalloway, but I guess I'd just like to see a book/movie about Woolf(or Sylvia Plath, or Anne Sexton) that didn't stress her suicide. People talk about male writers who committed suicide (Hemingway, for example) without EVER MENTIONING how they died, but for some reason with female suicides that's the only story people are interested in telling about them. Just my pet peeve, though. :-) I do think Cunningham writes beautifully. And it's not really his fault that his book was sort of the straw that broke the camel's back for me on this issue. It wouldn't seem unbalanced if everyone else wasn't ALSO focusing on Woolf's suicide.

  18. It sounds like the book does a great job of exploring the lives of all 3 women. It sounds fascinating to me.

  19. I've been wanting to reread Mrs. Dalloway, then read The Hours, then see the movie with Nicole Kidman et. al. -- in that order. Thanks for inspiring me!

  20. I felt lukewarm about Mrs. Dalloway and about The Hours, but your review makes me think I missed some of the little things. It's a beautiful review, to make me reconsider the book!

  21. Beautiful! The Hours is one of my all-time faves, and I also waited an astonishingly, ridiculously long time to tackle Mrs. Dalloway (and I enjoyed it, too).

    I've started embracing re-reads more because I've felt for a while that I'm missing out by ignoring a visit with old favorites. The Hours is high on my list for a re-read.

  22. What a perfect letter! I reread The Hours earlier this year, right after reading Mrs. D - what an experience. I really don't reread enough and should make a point of revisiting a couple of favorites each year. At the top of my ' to be reread' list right now is Corelli's Mandolin, followed by Crossing to Safety, Howard's End and Pride & Prejudice. Great review of The Hours!

  23. I had every intention of reading Mrs. Dalloway this year .... and then I picked it up, started reading, and decided I wasn't ready for it. I'm not sure I will ever be.

    I saw the movie "The Hours" but it didn't strike me as a book I would want to read. But I'm lazy like that.

  24. First off, I love your letter to yourself :) Second, I really MUST read both this AND Mrs. Dalloway...I have Mrs. Dalloway, but don't have this one yet.

  25. Claire @ Paperback Reader is correct - a new one coming out this year! I scheduled a post about it for tomorrow or the next day, I think? I was super excited to hear about it - so much so that I think I let out a squee at work!

  26. I need to read this, but I think I need to read Mrs. Dalloway first.

  27. Dear Ana from TMAL.com:

    To say that you have become just an apt and competent blogger would be a gross understatement. To praise the fruits of your work by pointing out your legion of followers and the high vitality of this domain would be an exercise in futility.

    Suffice to say, I feel proud of ascertaining the high standards of your website. I wish the best of luck in your present and future endeavors!

    All the best,
    Timeless Pedro

  28. I read The Hours before Mrs Dalloway and I have to say I loved it. Such an awesome, awesome book :)

  29. After reading your review I am so sad that I saw the movie before reading this book. But I will read the book one day.

  30. Nymeth, I enjoyed this review so much. When you expressed this request of yourself...." Don’t be afraid you won’t love them as much as you remember. The reward of rediscovering an old favourite is more than worth the risk." ...I knew exactly how you felt. I often won't re-read a treasure because of just this fear.


  31. I love re-reading books, so I'm happy to see you rediscovering a book. Sometimes re-reads can be even more fulfilling than the initial read.

  32. Claire: It's wonderful how some books can make you appreciate others more <3 I suspect that having read this first made me love Mrs Dalloway more easily, and now that has made me love The Hours even more.

    Alessandra: Somehow it really clicked with me even before I read The Hours, but I loved it so much more now.

    Iris: Yeah, all those new books keep distracting me from my intended re-reads too. Which is a great pity!

    Simon: That happens to me too - I still see Kirsten Dunst whenever I read The Virgin Suicides, even though it's one of my all-time favourite books. Also, thank you for commenting! I confess to lurking at your blog a lot too, so we're even :P

    Emidy: I'm not sure that the order matters, really. Mrs Dalloway will make you appreciate this more, but then again the reverse is true too.

    Amanda: No two readers define good writing in the exact same way, of course, so what's beautiful for me can very well be purple prose for others! I'd tell you to give this another go (Mrs Brown's story in particular reminded me of The Awakening, which I know you loved), but I completely understand why you hesitate to invest yet more time in something you hated. If you do decide to, at least it's short :P

    Elisabeth: Yes you must!

    Zibilee: I completely understand the intimidation. It took me almost a decade to overcome it myself :P

    Amy: Those Perennial covers really are beautiful! And yes, see if you can find an angel to get it for you :)

    Staci: That would be an excellent idea :)

    Joanna: Ah well... can't love them all, right? :P

    Anothercookiecrumbles: It really is an outstanding book. I'm not sure if I should count re-reads for my top of the year (that this question hasn't come up before shows how much I've been neglecting them), but if I do, this will surely make the list.

    Avid Reader: I can definitely see how Mrs Dalloway would improve with a re-read.

    Kate: Thank you so much!

    Tea Lady: There was one in mine too until earlier this year, so don't feel bad :P

    Emily: That's an excellent point, and a very valid piece of criticism. I remember a post about this exact problem at Tales from the Reading Room earlier this year that really made me think. And yes, you're absolutely right that the way suicide/madness are constructed in women writers is completely different than in men! There were two things that made me not worry about this problem so much when it comes to this book: the first is that I first fell in love with it as a teenager, when I wasn't very aware of these things. As much as I don't want it to, I think that colours my perception of the book even now. Secondly, I think Cunningham's approach was a little different because he focused on these women's life circumstances, and on how all the social expectations they had to live up to could drive them over the edge. To me that makes it a little different from the usual narrative about the damaged/tragic woman artist. Having said that, I can completely see how this book could be the straw that broke the camel's back! Like you said, the problem is that there's too much focus on that altogether.

  33. I loved Mrs Dalloway when I read it last year but The Hours did nothing for me when I read it a decade ago. I wonder if it's because I read it in that order? But I do not often love modern fiction in the same way I love the classics, so it's probably just me not liking it. So glad you loved it though! I love the letter you write to your self.

  34. Wonderful, wonderful review. I love The Hours. I read it many years ago and your post has brought it all back. I commend Cunningham for his courage and the sheer audacity to attempt and succeed at, quite brilliantly, "chaneling" Mrs Dalloway. And what a homage to Woolf! And such a talented, very insightful writer he is. I could go on and on. But thanks again.

  35. Kathy: It really was :)

    Stephanie: I did enjoy the movie, but I recommend reading it first, yes :)

    Jeanne: Thank you for the kind words!

    Andi: I don't know why this didn't help me get rid of my Woolf intimidation sooner! But I'm glad I'm at least not alone :P

    JoAnn: You have some great re-reads planned! I'm hoping to be able to read Captain Corelli's Mandolin for the first time this summer.

    Jenners: I'm sorry to hear it! But I completely understand why not everyone would love it.

    Chris: Yes you must!

    Lena: That's very exciting about his new book!

    Clare: I honestly think it works just as well the other way around!

    Smitten: Thanks for the kind words and good wishes :P Let me know if you still need help setting up that comics/GNs site. I do think it's an excellent idea. You know where to find me :P

    Bella: Isn't it? :)

    Kathleen: It's definitely still worth reading!

    wisteria: Thank you for the kind words!

    Trisha: I used to be a big re-reader, but now, not so much. I blame all those shiny new books bloggers keep introducing me to :P But I really do miss it, so I'll have to work to change my habits.

    Rebecca: I can see why not everyone would love this as much as I did, of course. I'm sorry it didn't really work for you!

    Kinna: Thank you! It was brave of him to even try something like this, and he succeeded wonderfully.

  36. This was one of the few instances where I think I liked the movie better than the book.

    There was one scene in the book though that I thought was amazing, the one where Virginia's niece and nephews are visiting and they make a funeral bed for a dying bird, and Virginia is left to contemplate it after everyone else has become bored with the ceremony and left. It was such a simple scene and at the same time there was so much going on, and I was blown away by Cunningham's ability to convey that in the way that he did.

  37. I LOVED this so much, it made me cry and I very rarely cry. It was just beautiful and I found it extremely sad, sad for all three characters. I want to re-read this now.

    The movie was lovely too. Julianne Moore should have won the Oscar rather than Nicole Kidman.

  38. Ana, so many have recommend The Hours to me during Woolf in Winter, but I can say it was finally you who convinced me! I am ordering this from The Book Dep as soon as I can.. thank you.

  39. I watched the film a few months ago and just fell in love with it. There was a stillness and a depth which touched me and I couldn't stop thinking about it for days. Now I really want to read the book, but like Simon said, I wish I'd read it before watching the film...

  40. Isn't this a beautiful book? I read it after reading Mrs. Dalloway so I can't imagine reading it in a different order, but both books are masterpieces in their own rights and Cunningham's even more so as a companion to Mrs. Dalloway. Makes me want to re-read both of them immediately.

    I wish I allowed myself to re-read books more often. Lately I've been trying to seek them out on audio but the experience just isn't the same. Sometimes I wish that publishing could come to a standstill to let me catch up but then that wouldn't be fair either--there's just too many good books (which is NEVER a bad thing). Sigh...if only we could have a few more hours in the day.

  41. Dreamybee: Yes yes yes - that was an amazing scene.

    Mae: It made me cry too - but then I confess I cry easily :P I agree that Julianne Moore was better than Kidman, but then I connected with that storyline more than with the others.

    Claire: I'm flattered to hear it, and I can't wait to hear what you think kf it!

    sakura: I completely understand what you and Simon mean, but I think you'll love the book all the same.

    Trish: It really, really is. My teenage self loved it even without having read Mrs Dalloway, but of course I could see what he was doing a lot more clearly now. And ha, wouldn't that be nice? A year hiatus in publishing so that Ana and Trish can catch up ;)


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