The Hours

( 175 )

Overview

A daring, deeply affecting third novel by the author of A Home at the End of the World and Flesh and Blood.

In The Hours, Michael Cunningham, widely praised as one of the most gifted writers of his generation, draws inventively on the life and work of Virginia Woolf to tell the story of a group of contemporary characters struggling with the conflicting claims of love and inheritance, hope and despair. The narrative of Woolf's last days before her suicide early in World War II ...

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The Hours: A Novel

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Overview

A daring, deeply affecting third novel by the author of A Home at the End of the World and Flesh and Blood.

In The Hours, Michael Cunningham, widely praised as one of the most gifted writers of his generation, draws inventively on the life and work of Virginia Woolf to tell the story of a group of contemporary characters struggling with the conflicting claims of love and inheritance, hope and despair. The narrative of Woolf's last days before her suicide early in World War II counterpoints the fictional stories of Samuel, a famous poet whose life has been shadowed by his talented and troubled mother, and his lifelong friend Clarissa, who strives to forge a balanced and rewarding life in spite of the demands of friends, lovers, and family.

Passionate, profound, and deeply moving, this is Cunningham's most remarkable achievement to date.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
The Hours is Michael Cunningham's crystalline meditation on consciousness and identity, drawing on Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway -- a postmodern masterpiece whose minimal action takes place on a single June day in postwar London.

The Hours progresses in fuguelike fashion: First we meet Clarissa Vaughan, a New York book editor dubbed "Mrs Dalloway" by her longtime friend and former lover Richard. Next, Cunningham presents Woolf herself, beginning work in 1923 on what is to become Mrs. Dalloway. And finally we are introduced to Laura Brown, a California housewife who is avidly reading Woolf's novel.

Scenes from these three narratives are presented in recurrent identical succession: "Mrs. Dalloway," Mrs. Woolf, Mrs. Brown -- all bristling with connections and startling parallels. The "Mrs. Dalloway" strand is particularly rich, filled as it is with one-to-one correspondences to Woolf's novel. But the deepest and most important thing that The Hours shares with Mrs. Dalloway is "the feeling," as Woolf called it, "that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day." Cunningham's three women proceed through the day, through the hours, trying to keep themselves psychologically intact, like someone carrying a glass of water filled to the brim through a crowd and endeavoring not to spill it. They hesitate before plunging into the day because they know how hard it is to live in the world and remain identical with oneself. And they puzzle over a universal dilemma: how to bring the self into the world without its getting broken in the process. In The Hours, Michael Cunningham has explored this dilemma with an impressive and moving subtlety worthy of his great precursor. Benjamin Kunkel

From the Publisher
"The overall impression is that of a delicate, triumphant glance, an acknowledgement of Woolf that takes her into Cunningham's own territory, a place of late-century danger but also of treasurable hours."—Michael Wood, The New York Times Book Review

"An exquisitely written, kaleidoscopic work that anchors a floating postmodern world on pre-modern caissons of love, grief and transcendent longing."—Richard Eder,Los Angeles Times Book Review

"[Cunningham] has deftly created something original, a trio of richly interwoven tales that alternate with one another chapter by chapter, each of them entering the thoughts of a character as she moves through the small details of a day . . . Cunningham's emulation of such a revered writer as Woolf is courageous, and this is his most mature and masterful work."—Jameson Currier, The Washington Post Book World

"The triumph of The Hours is that it somehow manages to be both artful and sincere, striking nary a false note . . . And the triumph of the book is no less the triumph of its author. Just when it seemed that it was no longer permissible to pay respect to the literature of the past, Cunningham has done so with an undeniable skill and depth of feeling."—Justin Cronin, Philadelphia Inquirer

"Rich and beautifully nuanced scenes follow one upon the other . . . [a] gargantuan accomplishment."—Publishers Weekly (starred, boxed review)

Entertainment Weekly
...[D]elicate characterization.
Brooke Allen
...[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.
New Criterion
Charles Gandee
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.
Vogue
Ann Prichard
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.
USA Today
Richard Eder
A fictional instrument of intricacy and remarkable beauty.
Los Angeles Times
Michael Wood
A delicate, triumphant glance....A place of late-century danger but also of treasurable hours.
The New York Times Book Review
Newsday
With an intimacy only another writer could muster, Cunningham portrayed the act of creation as a heroic and dangerous adventure...a contemporary masterpiece.
David Bahr
For those familiar with Woolf's life, The Hours...offers a well-researched and credible facsimile of the British writer and her world.
Time Out
From The Critics
...[A] glittering work of exquisite detail and refined vision...
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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.

Library Journal
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
New York Magazine
Ambitious. . .successful.
Georgia Jones-Davis
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.
Salon November 10, 1998

Elissa Schappell
Inspired. . .Michael Cunningham dazzles.
Vanity Fair
Charles Gandee
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.
Vogue
Brooke Allen
...[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
The Missouri Review
Cunnungham's third novel, winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize, is understated and lyrical, literate and wise.
Entertainment Weekly
...[D]elicate characterization.
Michael Wood
A delicate, triumphant glance....A place of late-century danger but also of treasurable hours.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
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 willserve 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.

Library Journal
For readers who want another experience of an author turning a real writer into a fictional character, consider suggesting Cunningham’s multiple-award-winning novel of Virginia Woolf. With astounding skill and grace, Cunningham brings Woolf and her novel Mrs. Dalloway into a new perspective, gifting readers with Woolf’s presence in this shimmering work structured around three women: Clarissa Vaughan who is planning a party in NYC at the end of the 20th century; Woolf herself, in 1923, working on Mrs. Dalloway; and Laura Brown, a 1949 housewife living in Los Angeles who is reading Mrs. Dalloway. With its focus on literature, rich characterizations, beautiful prose, and exquisite management of both plot and pace, Cunningham’s remarkable novel should please Carlene Bauer’s fans.

(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312243029
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 1/1/2000
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 80,686
  • Lexile: 960L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.51 (w) x 8.17 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham was raised in Los Angeles and lives in New York City. He is the author of the novels A Home at the End of the World (Picador) and Flesh and Blood. His work has appeared in The New Yorker and Best American Short Stories, and he is the recipient of a Whiting Writer's Award. The Hours was a New York Times Bestseller, and was chosen as a Best Book of 1998 by The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Publishers Weekly.

Biography

By the time he finished Virginia Woolf's classic Mrs. Dalloway at the age of fifteen to impress a crush who tauntingly suggested he "try and be less stupid" and do so, Michael Cunningham knew that he was destined to become a writer. While his debut novel wouldn't come until decades later, he would win the Pulitzer for Fiction with his third -- fittingly, an homage to the very book that launched both his love of literature and his life's work.

After growing up Cincinnati, Ohio, Cunningham fled to the west coast to study literature at Stanford University, but later returned to the heartland, where he received his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1980. A writer recognized early on for his promising talent, Cunningham was awarded several grants toward his work, including a Michener Fellowship from the University of Iowa in 1982, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1988.

In 1984, Cunningham's debut novel, Golden States, was published. While generally well-received by the critics, the book -- a narrative chronicling a few weeks in the life of a 12-year-old-boy -- is often dismissed by Cunningham. In an interview with Other Voices, he explains: "I'm so much more interested in some kind of grand ambitious failure than I am in someone's modest little success that achieves its modest little aims. I felt that I had written a book like that, and I wasn't happy about it. My publisher very generously allowed me to turn down a paperback offer and it has really gone away."

With a new decade came Cunningham's stirring novel, A Home at the End of the World, in 1990. The story of a heartbreakingly lopsided love triangle between two gay men and their mutual female friend, the novel was a groundbreaking take on the ‘90s phenomenon of the nontraditional family. While not exactly released with fanfare, the work drew impressive reviews that instantly recognized Cunningham's gift for using language to define his characters' voices and outline their motives. David Kaufman of The Nation noted Cunningham's "exquisite way with words and ...his uncanny felicity in conveying both his characters and their story," and remarked that "this is quite simply one of those rare novel imbued with graceful insights on every page."

The critical acclaim of A Home at the End of the World no doubt helped Cunningham win the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993 -- and two years later, his domestic epic Flesh and Blood was released. Chronicling the dysfunctional Stassos family from their suburban present back through to the parents' roots and looking toward the children's uncertain futures, the sprawling saga was praised for its complexity and heart. The New York Times Book Review noted that "Mr. Cunningham gets all the little things right.... Mr. Cunningham gets the big stuff right, too. For the heart of the story lies not in the nostalgic references but in the complex relationships between parents and children, between siblings, friends and lovers."

While the new decade ushered in his impressive debut, the close of the decade brought with it Cunningham's inarguable opus, The Hours (1998). A tribute to that seminal work that was the author's first inspiration -- Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway -- the book reworks the events and ideas of the classic and sets them alternately in 1980s Greenwich Village, 1940s Los Angeles, and Woolf's London. Of Cunningham's ambitious project, USA Today raved, "The Hours is that rare combination: a smashing literary 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." The Hours won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and was adapted into a major motion picture starring the powerhouse trio of Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman in December 2002.

To come down from the frenetic success of The Hours, Cunningham took on a quieter project, 2002's tribute/travelogue Land's End: A Walk Through Provincetown. The first installment in Crown's new "Crown Journeys" series, the book is a loving tour through the eccentric little town at the tip of Cape Cod beloved by so many artists and authors, Cunningham included. A haven for literary legends from Eugene O'Neill to Norman Mailer, Cunningham is -- rightfully -- at home there.

Good To Know

Cunningham's debut novel, Golden States, can be hard to find; check out our Used & Out of Print Store to find a copy!

Cunningham's short story "White Angel" was chosen for Best American Short Stories 1989 -- the year before his acclaimed novel A Home at the End of the World was published.

When asked by Barnes & Noble.com about any other names he goes by, Cunningham's list included the monikers Bree Daniels, Mickey Fingers, Jethro, Old Yeller, Gaucho, Cowboy Ed, Tim-Bob, Mister Lies, Erin The Red, Miss Kitty, and Squeegee.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 6, 1952
    2. Place of Birth:
      Cincinnati, Ohio
    1. Education:
      B.A., Stanford University, 1975; M.F.A., University of Iowa, 1980
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from The Hours by Michael Cunningham. Copyright © 1998 by Michael Cunningham. To be published in November, 1998 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

She hurries from the house, wearing a coat too heavy for the weather. It is 1941. Another war has begun. She has left a note for Leonard, and another for Vanessa. She walks purposefully toward the river, certain of what she'll do, but even now she is almost distracted by the sight of the downs, the church, and a scattering of sheep, incandescent, tinged with a faint hint of sulfur, grazing under a darkening sky. She pauses, watching the sheep and the sky, then walks on. The voices murmur behind her; bombers drone in the sky, though she looks for the planes and can't see them. She walks past one of the farm workers (is his name John?), a robust, small-headed man wearing a potato-colored vest, cleaning the ditch that runs through the osier bed. He looks up at her, nods, looks down again into the brown water. As she passes him on her way to the river she thinks of how successful he is, how fortunate, to be cleaning a ditch in an osier bed. She herself has failed. She is not a writer at all, really; she is merely a gifted eccentric. Patches of sky shine in puddles left over from last night's rain. Her shoes sink slightly into the soft earth. She has failed, and now the voices are back, muttering indistinctly just beyond the range of her vision, behind her, here, no, turn and they've gone somewhere else. The voices are back and the headache is approaching as surely as rain, the headache that will crush whatever is she and replace her with itself. The headache is approaching and it seems (is she or is she not conjuring them herself?) that the bombers have appeared again in the sky. She reaches the embankment, climbs over and down again to the river. There's a fisherman upriver, far away, he won't notice her, will he? She begins searching for a stone. She works quickly but methodically, as if she were following a recipe that must be obeyed scrupulously if it's to succeed at all. She selects one roughly the size and shape of a pig's skull. Even as she lifts it and forces it into one of the pockets of her coat (the fur collar tickles her neck), she can't help noticing the stone's cold chalkiness and its color, a milky brown with spots of green. She stands close to the edge of the river, which laps against the bank, filling the small irregularities in the mud with clear water that might be a different substance altogether from the yellow-brown, dappled stuff, solid-looking as a road, that extends so steadily from bank to bank. She steps forward. She does not remove her shoes. The water is cold, but not unbearably so. She pauses, standing in cold water up to her knees. She thinks of Leonard. She thinks of his hands and his beard, the deep lines around his mouth.

She thinks of Vanessa, of the children, of Vita and Ethel: So many. They have all failed, haven't they? She is suddenly, immensely sorry for them. She imagines turning around, taking the stone out of her pocket, going back to the house. She could probably return in time to destroy the notes. She could live on; she could perform that final kindness. Standing knee-deep in the moving water, she decides against it. The voices are here, the headache is coming, and if she restores herself to the care of Leonard and Vanessa they won't let her go again, will they? She decides to insist that they let her go. She wades awkwardly (the bottom is mucky) out until she is up to her waist. She glances upriver at the fisherman, who is wearing a red jacket and who does not see her. The yellow surface of the river (more yellow than brown when seen this close) murkily reflects the sky. Here, then, is the last moment of true perception, a man fishing in a red jacket and a cloudy sky reflected on opaque water. Almost involuntarily (it feels involuntary, to her) she steps or stumbles forward, and the stone pulls her in. For a moment, still, it seems like nothing; it seems like another failure; just chill water she can easily swim back out of; but then the current wraps itself around her and takes her with such sudden, muscular force it feels as if a strong man has risen from the bottom, grabbed her legs and held them to his chest. It feels personal.

More than an hour later, her husband returns from the garden. "Madame went out," the maid says, plumping a shabby pillow that releases a miniature storm of down. "She said she'd be back soon."

Leonard goes upstairs to the sitting room to listen to the news. He finds a blue envelope, addressed to him, on the table. Inside is a letter.

Dearest,

I feel certain that I am going

mad again: I feel we can't go

through another of these terrible times.

And I shant recover this time. I begin

to hear voices, and cant concentrate.

So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have

given me

the greatest possible happiness. You

have been in every way all that anyone

could be. I dont think two

people could have been happier till

this terrible disease came. I cant

fight it any longer, I know that I am

spoiling your life, that without me you

could work. And you will I know.

You see I cant even write this properly. I

cant read. What I want to say is that

I owe all the happiness of my life to you.

You have been entirely patient with me &

incredibly good. I want to say that—

everybody knows it. If anybody could

have saved me it would have been you.

Everything has gone from me but the

certainty of your goodness. I

cant go on spoiling your life any longer. I dont think two

people

could have been happier than we have been. V.

Leonard races from the room, runs downstairs. He says to the maid, "I think something has happened to Mrs. Woolf. I think she may have tried to kill herself. Which way did she go? Did you see her leave the house?"

The maid, panicked, begins to cry. Leonard rushes out and goes to the river, past the church and the sheep, past the osier bed. At the riverbank he finds no one but a man in a red jacket, fishing.

She is borne quickly along by the current. She appears to be flying, a fantastic figure, arms outstretched, hair streaming, the tail of the fur coat billowing behind. She floats, heavily, through shafts of brown, granular light. She does not travel far. Her feet (the shoes are gone) strike the bottom occasionally, and when they do they summon up a sluggish cloud of muck, filled with the black silhouettes of leaf skeletons, that stands all but stationary in the water after she has passed along out of sight. Stripes of green-black weed catch in her hair and the fur of her coat, and for a while her eyes are blindfolded by a thick swatch of weed, which finally loosens itself and floats, twisting and untwisting and twisting again.

She comes to rest, eventually, against one of the pilings of the bridge at Southease. The current presses her, worries her, but she is firmly positioned at the base of the squat, square column, with her back to the river and her face against the stone. She curls there with one arm folded against her chest and the other afloat over the rise of her hip. Some distance above her is the bright, rippled surface. The sky reflects unsteadily there, white and heavy with clouds, traversed by the black cutout shapes of rooks. Cars and trucks rumble over the bridge. A small boy, no older than three, crossing the bridge with his mother, stops at the rail, crouches, and pushes the stick he's been carrying between the slats of the railing so it will fall into the water. His mother urges him along but he insists on staying awhile, watching the stick as the current takes it.

Here they are, on a day early in the Second World War: the boy and his mother on the bridge, the stick floating over the water's surface, and Virginia's body at the river's bottom, as if she is dreaming of the surface, the stick, the boy and his mother, the sky and the rooks. An olive-drab truck rolls across the bridge, loaded with soldiers in uniform, who wave to the boy who has just thrown the stick. He waves back. He demands that his mother pick him up so he can see the soldiers better; so he will be more visible to them. All this enters the bridge, resounds through its wood and stone, and enters Virginia's body. Her face, pressed sideways to the piling, absorbs it all: the truck and the soldiers, the mother and the child.

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First Chapter

Prologue

She hurries from the house, wearing a coat too heavy for the weather. It is 1941. Another war has begun. She has left a note for Leonard, and another for Vanessa. She walks purposefully toward the river, certain of what she'll do, but even now she is almost distracted by the sight of the downs, the church, and a scattering of sheep, incandescent, tinged with a faint hint of sulfur, grazing under a darkening sky. She pauses, watching the sheep and the sky, then walks on. The voices murmur behind her; bombers drone in the sky, though she looks for the planes and can't see them. She walks past one of the farm workers (is his name John?), a robust, small-headed man wearing a potato-colored vest, cleaning the ditch that runs through the osier bed. He looks up at her, nods, looks down again into the brown water. As she passes him on her way to the river she thinks of how successful he is, how fortunate, to be cleaning a ditch in an osier bed. She herself has failed. She is not a writer at all, really; she is merely a gifted eccentric. Patches of sky shine in puddles left over from last night's rain. Her shoes sink slightly into the soft earth. She has failed, and now the voices are back, muttering indistinctly just beyond the range of her vision, behind her, here, no, turn and they've gone somewhere else. The voices are back and the headache is approaching as surely as rain, the headache that will crush whatever is she and replace her with itself. The headache is approaching and it seems (is she or is she not conjuring them herself?) that the bombers have appeared again in the sky. She reaches the embankment, climbs over and down again to the river. There's a fisherman upriver, far away, he won't notice her, will he? She begins searching for a stone. She works quickly but methodically, as if she were following a recipe that must be obeyed scrupulously if it's to succeed at all. She selects one roughly the size and shape of a pig's skull. Even as she lifts it and forces it into one of the pockets of her coat (the fur collar tickles her neck), she can't help noticing the stone's cold chalkiness and its color, a milky brown with spots of green. She stands close to the edge of the river, which laps against the bank, filling the small irregularities in the mud with clear water that might be a different substance altogether from the yellow-brown, dappled stuff, solid-looking as a road, that extends so steadily from bank to bank. She steps forward. She does not remove her shoes. The water is cold, but not unbearably so. She pauses, standing in cold water up to her knees. She thinks of Leonard. She thinks of his hands and his beard, the deep lines around his mouth.

She thinks of Vanessa, of the children, of Vita and Ethel: So many. They have all failed, haven't they? She is suddenly, immensely sorry for them. She imagines turning around, taking the stone out of her pocket, going back to the house. She could probably return in time to destroy the notes. She could live on; she could perform that final kindness. Standing knee-deep in the moving water, she decides against it. The voices are here, the headache is coming, and if she restores herself to the care of Leonard and Vanessa they won't let her go again, will they? She decides to insist that they let her go. She wades awkwardly (the bottom is mucky) out until she is up to her waist. She glances upriver at the fisherman, who is wearing a red jacket and who does not see her. The yellow surface of the river (more yellow than brown when seen this close) murkily reflects the sky. Here, then, is the last moment of true perception, a man fishing in a red jacket and a cloudy sky reflected on opaque water. Almost involuntarily (it feels involuntary, to her) she steps or stumbles forward, and the stone pulls her in. For a moment, still, it seems like nothing; it seems like another failure; just chill water she can easily swim back out of; but then the current wraps itself around her and takes her with such sudden, muscular force it feels as if a strong man has risen from the bottom, grabbed her legs and held them to his chest. It feels personal.

    More than an hour later, her husband returns from the garden. "Madame went out," the maid says, plumping a shabby pillow that releases a miniature storm of down. "She said she'd be back soon."

    Leonard goes upstairs to the sitting room to listen to the news. He finds a blue envelope, addressed to him, on the table. Inside is a letter.

Dearest,
I feel certain that I am going
mad again: I feel we can't go
through another of these terrible times.
And I shant recover this time. I begin
to hear voices, and cant concentrate.
So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have
given me
the greatest possible happiness. You
have been in every way all that anyone
could be. I dont think two
people could have been happier till
this terrible disease came. I cant
fight it any longer, I know that I am
spoiling your life, that without me you
could work. And you will I know.
You see I cant even write this properly. I
cant read. What I want to say is that
I owe all the happiness of my life to you.
You have been entirely patient with me &
incredibly good. I want to say that--
everybody knows it. If anybody could
have saved me it would have been you.
Everything has gone from me but the
certainty of your goodness. I
cant go on spoiling your life any longer. I dont think two
people
could have been happier than we have been. V.

Leonard races from the room, runs downstairs. He says to the maid, "I think something has happened to Mrs. Woolf. I think she may have tried to kill herself. Which way did she go? Did you see her leave the house?"

    The maid, panicked, begins to cry. Leonard rushes out and goes to the river, past the church and the sheep, past the osier bed. At the riverbank he finds no one but a man in a red jacket, fishing.

She is borne quickly along by the current. She appears to be flying, a fantastic figure, arms outstretched, hair streaming, the tail of the fur coat billowing behind. She floats, heavily, through shafts of brown, granular light. She does not travel far. Her feet (the shoes are gone) strike the bottom occasionally, and when they do they summon up a sluggish cloud of muck, filled with the black silhouettes of leaf skeletons, that stands all but stationary in the water after she has passed along out of sight. Stripes of green-black weed catch in her hair and the fur of her coat, and for a while her eyes are blindfolded by a thick swatch of weed, which finally loosens itself and floats, twisting and untwisting and twisting again.

    She comes to rest, eventually, against one of the pilings of the bridge at Southease. The current presses her, worries her, but she is firmly positioned at the base of the squat, square column, with her back to the river and her face against the stone. She curls there with one arm folded against her chest and the other afloat over the rise of her hip. Some distance above her is the bright, rippled surface. The sky reflects unsteadily there, white and heavy with clouds, traversed by the black cutout shapes of rooks. Cars and trucks rumble over the bridge. A small boy, no older than three, crossing the bridge with his mother, stops at the rail, crouches, and pushes the stick he's been carrying between the slats of the railing so it will fall into the water. His mother urges him along but he insists on staying awhile, watching the stick as the current takes it.

    Here they are, on a day early in the Second World War: the boy and his mother on the bridge, the stick floating over the water's surface, and Virginia's body at the river's bottom, as if she is dreaming of the surface, the stick, the boy and his mother, the sky and the rooks. An olive-drab truck rolls across the bridge, loaded with soldiers in uniform, who wave to the boy who has just thrown the stick. He waves back. He demands that his mother pick him up so he can see the soldiers better; so he will be more visible to them. All this enters the bridge, resounds through its wood and stone, and enters Virginia's body. Her face, pressed sideways to the piling, absorbs it all: the truck and the soldiers, the mother and the child.

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Reading Group Guide

About this Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about The Hours are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach The Hours.

About the Book

A daring, deeply affecting third novel by the author of A Home at the End of the World and Flesh and Blood.

In The Hours, Michael Cunningham, widely praised as one of the most gifted writers of his generation, draws inventively on the life and work of Virginia Woolf to tell the story of a group of contemporary characters struggling with the conflicting claims of love and inheritance, hope and despair. The narrative of Woolf's last days before her suicide early in World War II counterpoints the fictional stories of Samuel, a famous poet whose life has been shadowed by his talented and troubled mother, and his lifelong friend Clarissa, who strives to forge a balanced and rewarding life in spite of the demands of friends, lovers, and family.

Passionate, profound, and deeply moving, this is Cunningham's most remarkable achievement to date.

About the Author

Michael Cunningham was raised in Los Angeles and lives in New York City. He is the author of the novels A Home at the End of the World (Picador) and Flesh and Blood. His work has appeared in The New Yorker and Best American Short Stories, and he is the recipient of a Whiting Writer's Award. The Hours was a New York Times Bestseller, and was chosen as a Best Book of 1998 by The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Publishers Weekly.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 175 )
Rating Distribution

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4 Star

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3 Star

(21)

2 Star

(15)

1 Star

(11)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 175 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 24, 2009

    A Truly Remarkable Work of Literature

    Michael Cunningham's The Hours is a timeless piece of literary achievement that is deserving of its Pulitzer Prize. He remarkably and cleverly weaves the stories of three different women of three different time periods into one flowing story. There is Virginia Woolf in 1923, and her story is followed as she writes her greatest literary achievement, Mrs. Dalloway. Then, there is Laura Brown, a wife and mother from 1949, who struggles with the confinement of her life and seeks to escape it through reading Mrs. Dalloway. Then finally, there is Clarissa Vaughn, a curious reincarnation of Clarissa Dalloway, who is alive at the end of the twentieth century, and whose story follows the planning of a party for a friend. Each finds herself in an undesired position -one of dissatisfaction. These three stories are soon woven together, depicting each individual's triumphs and sorrows and eventually, the connection all three share, despite the passage of time.
    The book really gave me something to chew on. For one, Cunningham's depiction of the theme of confinement was certainly interesting. Though each woman is under a very different situation, each feels that they are somehow constrained. What is more interesting is how each woman handles her situation. Another thing that amazed me was Cunningham's ability to highlight the most everyday things, and give them the most expressive descriptions to make them come alive. He is able to portray that life does not just go on, but every waking moment of life is something special. Interestingly enough, he also contrasts that theme with the idea that life is just a fleeting picture.
    I personally found the book enjoyable. The imagery Michael creates is just stunning, and really brings out the essence of everyday life. At the same time, he is able to manipulate the imagery, syntax, and diction to create a different picture depending on the character. The plot is certainly unique and is very craftily put together. I enjoyed my time reading the book for its literary brilliance. At the same time, I feel that the book was a little over-done at times. While the descriptions certainly add to the life of the book, they do become slightly overwhelming or confusing at times. Also, there are a lot of names to keep track of, making certain parts feel like they're too much to swallow at once. I would recommend this book to those who are looking for a good read and a good piece of literature. After I finished reading, not only was I left wowed, but I was also left with a lot to think about. However, I wouldn't recommend this to someone looking for a climactic plot, or a thriller as this is one of those pieces that is simply done to show the power of the pen. Also, it is better suited toward juniors in high school and beyond, as it features some material that requires some maturity to appreciate.
    And so, through his great style of writing, Cunningham is able to entice the reader into getting lost in The Hours, much as Laura Brown fell into Mrs. Dalloway.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2012

    The Hours by Michael Cunningham

    If you've seen the movie and not yet read the book, I would highly recommend Mr. Cunningham's work. The successful transfer of his novel to motion picture says a great deal about David Hare, the man who wrote the screenplay,and did a beautiful job, I must say. The way the movie flows from one era to another is done so masterfully by all who worked to create the motion picture version of this work. Both the novel and screenplay are a 'NOT TO BE MISSED, MUST READ AND SEE'. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND BOTH!

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2011

    Gorgeous

    While some parts were sluggish and interuppted the momentum of the story, they were not enough to detract from the beautiful stories that Cunningham effortlessy weaves together. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for an intellectually stimulating read.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 24, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Liked It More Than The Source

    I think the highest praise I can give this novel is that it was worth suffering through Mrs Dalloway to get the most out of it. The Hours, you see, could be described as a "derivative work" ie fan fiction. One thread is about Virginia Woolf, the author of Mrs Dalloway, another about a woman reading Mrs Dalloway and a third about a woman nicknamed Dalloway by a friend. It's this last thread where reading Woolf's novel first pays off since it's a riff on the characters and events of that novel only set in contemporary New York City, and translated beautifully and movingly. One of the pleasures for me in the book was recognizing the references. Eventually the three narrative threads connect up.

    I loved this book a lot more than the source. For one a central event in first novel has a lot more resonance in the second where it has a real affect on the other characters. The narrative of The Hours, although lyrical and interior is far more coherent than Woolf's almost mad stream of consciousness narrative--and certainly, present-day New York City is far more accessible to me than 1923 London and the way of its upper classes. I also found the characters of The Hours much more sympathetic and easier to identify with than Woolf's characters. (That's not the distance of time or country--Austen, Forster, Shakespeare--Gilgamesh have characters far more accessible and sympathetic to me than Woolf's in Mrs Dalloway) I felt the second novel illuminated and used the first well, while standing on its own with its themes of the terrors of middle age and taking a measure of one's life.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 1, 2009

    Virginia Woolf Reincarnated

    Outstanding novel. Based on the novel Mrs. Dalloway and Ms. Woolf's life, this book is an excellent read. Not for religious fundamentalist as the gay focus will greatly trouble them. Highly recommended for the rest of us.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2007

    Because the light is too fleeting to grasp in your hands.

    THE HOURS is a book both beautiful and agonizing, portraying human emotion clearly, like a bell rung through a forest: you hear it, you want to run to it, but it is too far away. Lovely.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2013

    I highly recommend this book to people in junior high and high s

    I highly recommend this book to people in junior high and high school. This is a very good mystery book. You never really know what going to happen. You better read it!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2012

    I watched the movie abd fell in love

    Read this bpok

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 30, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    If you like classics, you'll love this book...

    This story was unexpected. It's difficult to review this book without giving too much away. Complicated, for me, is the word that best describes a meeting place for these characters; they relate with restraint, with each relationship falling short of a need. This book improves with age, and plays on your mind. I loved it.

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  • Posted April 12, 2011

    It is one of the most amazing books I have ever read

    This book shows romance and drama it is about a girl that has the best life until she. Finds out that she has cancer she ends up going into a deep depresion until she has a flash back and is throughn. Into the future and see what she could of been what she could of looked like and what her future was going to look like. She could never have kids she could never get married she sees that all of her life is flashing befor her eyes. I would read this book again but it is one of those books that you want to waight a little wile before reading a gain so you dont go ow she gets. Cancer in this scene but this is one of the best books that I have ever read and I would like to read it again some time in the future.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 15, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Over the top

    The writing is great to the point that it is just too much. You have long flowing paragraphs filled with description after description. None of it's really necessary. The story was intriguing, and the last 40 pages or so kept me reading until the end. But take away the fluff, and what you have is a completely mediocre book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 18, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Not worthy of a Pulitzer

    The author's writing style is simple and easy to read which is the only positive thing I can say. I appreciated the writing style but could not grow to care for the characters. I usually enjoy gloomy storylines because a depressive mood is real to most people. I don't expect a happy ending or a moral lesson in every book I read. However, the author did not do a good job in getting the reader to care for the characters. This was a story that had potential but did not deliver.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 17, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Wonderful Read!

    This was just a wonderful book to read and I can definetely see why it won the Pulitzer! The style is superb, and I really got lost in the language and imagery! I would recommend this book to anyone who loves a great read and a new story.

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  • Posted June 9, 2009

    The Hours Book Review

    In his book, The Hours, Michael Cunningham weaves together what I feel is practically a literary masterpiece. Masterfully integrating the very different lives of three women into one coherent story, Cunningham interlockss the timeless tale of Mrs. Dalloway and the plight of the great Virginia Woolf with the life of a nearly real-life Clarissa Dalloway into a tapestry of unmatched intricacy.
    The majority of the plot revolves around the respective and separate lives of three very different women, living in three very different time periods. There is Virginia Woolf, living in England in the early 1900's and embarking on her greatest literary achievement. There is a modern incarnation of the immortal Clarissa Dalloway, preparing for a party in a manner remarkably similar to her namesake. There is Laura Brown, pregnant in the 1950's, a voice suppressed and finding escapism in the words of Virginia Wolf. Although it seems as if these three distinct story lines could not possibly mesh in a manner that is both elegant and entertaining, Cunningham veritably proves all doubters wrong.
    With the book opening dramatically with the poignant suicide of Virginia Woolf, the entire book sets off on a rather somber mood, as Cunningham's prowess with the English language provides a suicide to be masterful and elegantly beautiful. As the limp body of Virginia Woolf drifts down the river, so do Cunningham's words, as they smoothly flow into each other just as naturally as a river. In an effort not to spoil the book for those of you unfortunate enough to haven't have read this amazing work of literary splendor yet, I'll refrain from detailing the plot and focus solely on the non-plot based merits this book deserves. And of those there are so many.
    Adding to the pure magic of the book is the relatability of the characters. With universal themes of loneliness and societal pressure being everprevalent in this book, the very core and soul of the book has the capacity to touch the depths of every heart. Adding insight to the most mundane aspects of life, like buying flowers, Cunningham weaves thought-provoking existentialism commentary into every day chores. As even taking a stroll down a street walked on so many times becomes grounds for a deep contemplation of life and all that is important for the characters of The Hours, Cunningham proves his adeptness in injecting the extraordinary into the ordinary.
    Honestly, I just think that this is one of the best books I've ever read. It's perfect for those days when you're just feeling a bit down and need a bit of escape, just as Laura finds escape in Mrs. Dalloway. I'm in love with Michael Cunningham's style and the way he uses commas and the fact that he somehow conveys exactly what he wants with all the accompanying images that just make this book so evocative. This is a tale of the outcome of when fate intertwines with deliberacy, as Michael Cunningham is able to teeter delicately on the line between intrigue and bore. Also, I wholeheartedly enjoy the jellyfish and yellow rose imagery.

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  • Posted April 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A book to be enjoyed!

    I loved the ending of this book and how it all came together. As a woman, I related to all of the characters on one level or another. It was well written and is really a book that is meant to be absorbed slowly.

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  • Posted March 24, 2009

    Captures the essence of Virginia Woolf (this is me Miss Jones)

    The Hours by Michael Cunningham follows the life of three women, from different eras, in a style very similar to the Virginia Woolf (it also includes chapters from Virginia Woolf's perspective). The novel is very effective in capturing Woolf's spirit in different aspects of Cunningham's writing, which include format, tone, and theme.
    The story is set up in a different, but effective format, which emphasizes each woman's daily life. It also helps with the flow and connection of the different stories of the three very different, but eerily similar women. Each chapter (give or take) follows one of the three main characters throughout their struggle with everyday life, and forbidden love.
    The overall tone of the story is gloomy, but with a backlight of hope. Each character within themselves are tragic, and come to a tragic end, which is common of Woolf's writing. Cunningham does a great job by not dragging down the story with tragic events that are prominent within the book. The world choice, or diction, is very uplifting and keeps the story flowing steadily all the way though.
    Overall this is a very good book for capturing the essence of Virginia Woolf, who is without a doubt one of the greatest writers of all time. It is a fairly quick read, with the text being fairly simple, and forceful, pulling he reader along for a ride. Virginia herself would be proud of this novel.

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  • Posted March 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Read Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway first.

    Michael Cunningham succeeded in writing this adaptation of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. At first, I thought it was a forced and trite reproduction of Woolf's writing style, but by the end of the book I was certain he brought a refreshing originality to the novel. The story follows three women: 1923 Woolf as she is writing Mrs. Dalloway, 1949 Laura Brown as she lives her life as an unsatisfied suburban housewife, and 2001 Clarissa Vaughan whose life follows that of Clarissa Dalloway.
    The Prologue at first seemed to be too haunting, but it did settle into a moving theme of despair and regret for the rest of the novel.
    The novel can be followed easily without having read Mrs. Dalloway first, but without reading it one can very easily miss many common themes, events, and character types.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2009

    Bookclub

    The commonality of the females issues and the diversity of their lives made this a good book club discussion. It was amazing all the different opinions that our club came up with.

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  • Posted October 28, 2008

    One of the most finely crafted books I've ever read

    Michael Cunningham expertly weaves a tale through time and literature. It grabs you from the beginning and never let's you go. I was amazed at how well he understands the intimate internal dialogue women conduct with themselves.

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  • Posted October 25, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    at the end I am satisfied...

    There is one sentence at the end of The Hours that expresses the theme of the novel. "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.....knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult." The Hours follows a day in the life of 3 women parallel to each other as they struggle. Virginia Woolf struggles to remain sane and writing, Laura Brown struggles to feel something and to make her husband a perfect birthday cake, and Clarissa Vaughn struggles to throw her friend Richard, dying of Aids, a party. The striving of these hours comes to climax bringing the stories of these women together. I love the subtleness of this novel. The writing is wonderful and fresh. The Hours has many layers and at the end I am satisfied.

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