Monday, December 8, 2008

1999 Prize Winner - The Hours (Cunningham) - Review by LegalMist

This review was originally posted on my other blog, LegalMist. Please see my spoiler alert before proceeding, and also feel welcome to join me for more discussion at the review posted on my LegalMist blog.

The Hours (Michael Cunningham, 1998) tells separate stories about a day in the life of each of three different women: Clarissa Vaughan, a modern New Yorker planning a party for a close friend who is dying; Laura Brown, a 1950's homemaker in a Los Angeles suburb; and Virginia Woolf, struggling to recover from (apparently) her mental illness and migraine-type headaches in a London suburb while beginning to write the novel Mrs. Dalloway in the early 1900's. Interspersed within the chapters about these three women, the book also provides some details of a day in the life of a fourth woman – Clarissa Dalloway, the title character of the book Virginia Woolf is writing.

A quick plot refresher – not intended to be comprehensive:

Clarissa Vaughan is planning a party for her friend, Richard Brown, who has won a literary award for his writing but who is also dying of AIDS. On the surface, the novel tells of her party preparations – buying flowers, arrangements for the food, stopping to visit Richard. The real focus, however, is on Clarissa’s thoughts, history, and relationships - with her friend and former beau Richard, her lesbian partner, her daughter, and her daughter's lesbian friend.

Laura Brown is planning a family birthday celebration for her husband and trying to make the "perfect" birthday cake while pregnant and caring for her three year old son. She is struggling with depression and finds that reading is her only escape from the harsh reality that she is unhappy with her seemingly perfect husband, home, and life. Her neighbor "Kitty" (also a 1950's homemaker) comes by with the news that she has to have exploratory surgery for a growth in her uterus, and they share a sensuous but ultimately awkward almost-kiss while her son looks on. Mrs. Brown is, for this day, obsessed with reading Virginia Woolf’s novel, and ends up guiltily leaving her son with a neighbor while she checks into a hotel room for several hours to read Mrs. Dalloway. Again, the real focus of the story is on Laura's thoughts, history, and relationships - with her husband, her son, and her neighbors.

Virginia Woolf is struggling to write her novel about a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway. She is also planning tea for her sister and sister’s children, who are supposed to arrive at four p.m. that day. The novel details the herculean struggle it takes for Virginia Woolf to overcome her crushing headache pain and to write her novel (or even to eat) and to entertain her sister and the kids. The real focus, again, is on Virginia's thoughts, her overwhelming desire to return to the big city, London, from the suburb where she currently lives, and her relationships - with her husband, her cook, her sister, her sister's kids. The prologue outlines Mrs. Woolf’s later suicide by drowning.

The subject of Virginia Woolf’s novel, Clarissa Dalloway, is also making party preparations. Woolf tells us that in the novel she "will have had" a love, a "girl she knew during her own girlhood," and she will "kill herself over something that seems, on the surface, like very little." (pages 83-84*).

My rambling thoughts:

The characters, although living in different times and circumstances, are tied together by the similar tasks that lie before them and the similar psychological challenges they face in getting through their days which appear ordinary and even potentially fun, yet are difficult for them due to their feelings of desperation and being not fully present, but more like spectators of their own lives. In this sense, the book is a comment by the author on the continuity of the human condition across the generations and the universal human experience of isolation and despair.

The stories of the three women are told in separate, alternating chapters. At first I found it a little confusing to keep up with which character was which, particularly because Clarissa Vaughan’s nickname (given to her by Richard) is "Mrs. Dalloway" and her chapters are labeled "Mrs. Dalloway," so at first I kept thinking her chapters should be about Virginia Woolf’s character. But overall, reading the women’s stories in separate chapters made it easier to keep the characters and their stories straight in my mind.

But the separateness of the stories also nearly blinded me to the ultimate connection between Clarissa and Laura: At the end of the book, after Clarissa Vaughan’s party preparations have been made, she stops by to help Richard get ready for the party (page 195*), but he is sitting on the window ledge in his fifth-floor apartment when she enters ... and he jumps from his apartment window and kills himself. Clarissa returns to her apartment where her lesbian partner has assisted in calling off the party, then welcomes Richard’s mother into her home to begin the grieving process.

It wasn’t until several days after I read the book that I realized that Richard’s mother, Laura, who came to Clarissa’s apartment after Richard’s suicide, was the same Laura Brown featured in the chapters on "Mrs. Brown" with her three year old son "Richie." Either I’m clueless (most likely conclusion), or the book is a bit obscure, perhaps intentionally, on this point.

The author inserts tons of parallels between the lives of the three characters in this book, and the character in Virginia Woolf’s book, Mrs. Dalloway. From the types of flowers they buy, to the similar structures of their days, to their depressing thoughts and attempts to be happy despite their despair, the novel provides a smorgasbord of foreshadowing and parallel events, exploring each character’s reaction to similar events. The author "mixes it up" a bit with some opposition, as well -- for example, Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Woolf are each married to (kind, loving) men, while "Mrs. Dalloway" (Mrs. Vaughan) is in a long-term lesbian relationship -- though at one point she refers to herself as being like a typical housewife. Mrs Woolf and Mrs. Brown both live in the suburbs, while Mrs. Dalloway (Vaughan) lives in New York city.

On one hand, this parallelism and foreshadowing can be a useful literary device, allowing the reader to draw connections between the characters and highlighting ideas that otherwise might pass unnoticed. On the other hand, I found it distracting to be so constantly reminded of the parallels between the characters’ lives. For me, it was harder to "suspend my disbelief" and get into the characters’ minds because the constant discovery of ways in which this character’s life was somehow parallel (or opposite) to that character’s life merely served to remind me that the whole thing was made up by a single author, Michael Cunningham, who could insert these random parallel facts wherever he liked.

My initial reaction to the book was, therefore, that I did not understand why it won the Pulitzer Prize. It was an entertaining enough read, but rather clumsily (I thought) drawn – I noticed the literary devices too much, and felt that the characters and plots were a little too similar. And among all these distracting parallels and other connections between the characters, I missed the obvious and probably most important one -- that Clarissa's friend, Richard Brown, was also Laura Brown's son "Richie."

But the book grew on me, particularly after I made the connection between "Richie" and "Richard" and "Mrs. Brown" and "Laura Brown" and then went back and re-read portions of the book. I found myself liking the characters more, and liking the story more.

Recognizing this connection gave me a lot more to think about: Was Richard's preoccupation with "Mrs. Dalloway" (calling his friend Clarissa "Mrs. D") caused by his mother's obsession with Virginia Woolf's book early in his life? (On the first read-through, I had seen it as merely another "random" connection between the characters). Is the author really showing us the "universality" of human experience, or trying to say that Virginia Woolf's book Mrs. Dalloway was so powerful that it could so profoundly alter these three lives? (Should I rush out and read Mrs. Dalloway next? Or is that a recipe for disaster?) Is this another instance of society (or this particular author) trying to blame women in general (Virginia Woolf as author) and mothers in particular (Laura Brown) for their children's mental health problems (depression, suicide) as adults? How does this theory fit with Clarissa's musings on her relationship with her daughter?

And what of Laura Brown's marriage? She married her husband, she says, out of "guilt" and a sense of duty. Wow. I can't think of anything that is less fair to a person than to marry them because you think you should instead of because you love them. How did that color her relationship with her son, and her son's subsequent relationships with the women and men he loved in his life? Is it, after all, the mother's fault that the son ended up depressed and suicidal? Yes, I recognize he was depressed due to his physical illness and probably suicidal because of the med's he took, but there are many reactions to physical illness; was his reaction merely a genetic predisposition, or do we, as a society, perhaps even unconsciously, blame his mom? Or is this a comment on the universal experience of human suffering and isolation?

I also found myself more intrigued by the slightly different perspectives of the characters and the fact that their different personalities showed through, even though much of what they did and said was similar. Clarissa Vaughan, for example, remains determined to be or become happy in spite of her inclination not to be, while Virginia Woolf's determination, it seemed to me, was merely a determination to "push through." Is this seemingly small difference enough to account for Virginia's eventual suicide? And there are interesting observations about human nature and human interaction throughout the book. For example, the discussion of Virginia's relationship with her maid / cook and her sense of a sort of power struggle in the relationship was fascinating.
So in the end, for those who haven’t read it, I recommend the book as one worth reading if you are "into" character studies and can stand a book so focused on depression and suicide. If a book makes me want to take a second look at it, it must be doing something right. However, if you are seeking a fast-paced adventure story, or a suspenseful thriller, this is not the book for you.

If you have read it, I bet you have come up with many more interesting questions and thoughts about the book than I have. I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of the above questions, or pose your own questions and I'll think about them, too. I have not read any other reviews of this book (other than the blurbs on the book jacket) because I didn't want any preconceptions about the book. Perhaps I'll go read some and see if those reviews spark any additional thoughts.

I’d also love to hear from anyone who has seen the movie (with Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman). Is it worth renting? Better, or worse, than the book?

Feel free to respond here, or over at the LegalMist blog. Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

Bybee said...

The movie was OK, but the pivotal scene with Laura and Clarissa was spoiled. The director chose to shoot Julianne Moore in an *extreme* face close up because the actress was pregnant, and her old-age makeup was too obvious and even seemed to be cracking and flaking as she spoke to Clarissa (Meryl Streep). Presumably, Streep's look of naked loathing is because of what Laura is revealing about herself and her relationship with her son, but I think it's also the makeup!