Book Review: The Hours
Virginia Woolf, in the 1920s, is attempting to start a new novel which will become Mrs Dalloway. Laura Brown in the 1940s is a young wife and mother wanting to read her copy of Mrs Dalloway and in the 1990s, Clarissa Brown is putting the finishing touches on a party she is hosting for her friend that night, the friend that has nicknamed her 'Mrs Dalloway. All three women in The Hours have Mrs Dalloway in common. All three women are trapped. All three will let you into a day of their lives. That one day that makes up this novel will stay with you much longer.
This novel is haunting. It follows the lives of three different women in different time periods with the common link of Mrs Dalloway. That is not all these three women have in common.
Virginia Woolf is one of the characters, in 1920s London (or rather a small town outside of London) where she is being watched by her husband while she is 'recovering' from her headaches. She has just come up with the idea of a new novel which throughout the day takes its form as Mrs Dalloway. Virginia's day is full with her battling against her inner demons, wanting to break free from her husband but also knowing that he is only doing what he believes is best for her. She deals with complicated feelings about her sister and internally, her sexuality. She also contemplates children and life and death, which is brilliantly demonstrated when a young bird dies and the children, her niece and nephews are confronted with death and throw the bird a funeral.
Virginia is trapped by her illness, by her husband, by her own sense of what she should do in comparison to what she wants to do. The inner battles are constant and relentless and it was an interesting read if only to try to imagine what Virginia Woolf, the person, the author, must have been feeling when coming up with the idea and writing Mrs Dalloway as it is a novel itself that reflects on life and death and being trapped as a woman, by society, by your own inner self.
In the 1940s, Laura Brown is also trapped. Trapped by her sense of obligation, trying to live up to the idea of a perfect wife and mother. She is exhausted by the strain and all she wants is to just keep reading her book Mrs Dalloway, and what the act of reading that book represents to her, freedom, no responsibility, doing something purely for herself, for own pleasure and not the pleasure of her son or her husband.
A quote I outlined in my Mrs Dalloway review was when Mrs Dalloway herself feels like she is no longer herself, after the expected rites of passage as a woman are over, marriage and having a baby. Mrs Dalloway didn't feel like she had a name anymore, only that of her husband, Mrs Richard Dalloway. This feeling and idea are represented by the character of Laura Brown in The Hours. She references her past self and how she was supposed to feel grateful that her husband noticed her and married her, as she was a plain girl who read a lot and apparently not the type to get noticed.
Laura's quest for perfection really stood out for me in the making of the birthday cake for her husband. It is a task she knows is expected of her and she tries to be the dutiful mum and involves her son in the making of the cake, but the cake doesn't turn out perfect. She makes a mistake with the icing. Rather than let her husband see what she considers a failure, she throws the cake in the bin and starts again, this time without the help of her son.
Meanwhile in the 1990s in NYC, Clarissa Vaughan, or Mrs Dalloway, as she is nicknamed by her best friend, is going to get flowers as she is throwing that best friend a party to celebrate an award he has won. I feel as if Clarissa is an alternate version of the actual character Clarissa Dalloway, if Clarissa Dalloway didn't marry Richard Dalloway or even Peter, but decided to live her life with her friend Sally as her wife. Clarissa Vaughan's wife, in fact, is named Sally and the people she meets throughout the day mirror the traits that the original Mrs Dalloway met along her way, planning her party.
Clarissa Vaughan is trapped by her past, in relieving her memories and thinking about what could have happened. She, however, is not as trapped as her two other counterparts in this novel, or rather, isn't as constrained by the views of the time. Her wife doesn't control her, she has had a daughter but they have a lovely relationship and she is still herself, hasn't lost her sense of identity like Laura but she is still missing something, a sense of satisfaction, maybe? A sense that her life only had one central point and everything since then has only been a hint at that emotion she felt, the hope she felt, the life she could have lived, possibly.
There are so many ways to read into the characters, and my interpretation is one of the many out there. I enjoyed this novel immensely. The three characters, all struggling within themselves, all exploring their sexuality, all not sure if they want to continue to meet the responsibilities, the expectations, the life that is ahead of them if it continues down the same path.
I read The Hours in the 24in48 readathon not long after reading Mrs Dalloway and both in the same 48-hour timeframe. In doing so, having read Mrs Dalloway first, I was able to very quickly see the parallels and differences. The way Michael Cunningham was able to have Mrs Dalloway at the heart of his novel, but expand and wrap the themes and ideas and characters in new and similar as well as different ways was extremely clever and I think I enjoyed The Hours so much more because of that. My nerdy book lover heart was very happy.
In light of National Awareness of Bullying Day that just occurred in Australia, I just want to say, before finishing my review, that the prologue in this book is of Virginia Woolf committing suicide. It is a powerful opening, especially as you get glimpses into what may have let her to that path, but just a word of warning to anyone considering picking this book up as it may be a bit confronting. Just know that if you are dealing with suicidal thoughts, that help is out there and you are not alone, please talk to a friend, a family member or call a hotline number. You may feel alone but there will be someone there to help, even if your voice shakes.
I read The Hours during the 24in48 readathon and it was a great pick. Not too long, you wanted to keep turning to pages to find out what happens to the characters and I read it not long after reading Mrs Dalloway in the same readathon which I thoroughly recommend reading the two books as close together as possible.
2018 Reading Challenges:
Have you read The Hours? Do you have any other recommendations with a similar theme? I would love to know your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below.