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The Hours, by Michael Cunningham

Reviewed by Tim Miller
Farrar-Straus-Giroux/New York
226 pages $22

Michael Cunningham's masterful and haunting Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Hours, is at once a love letter and a meditation on Virginia Woolf's classic modernist novel Mrs. Dalloway. In this remarkable achievement, Cunningham weaves together the stories of three different women at distinct times in the 20th Century as they struggle to find their way through the troubling complexities that each day of life offers us.

We witness Virginia Woolf in 1923 trying to make sense of both her lurking despair as well as the writing she is doing on her new novel which will one day be Mrs. Dalloway. There is a '50s housewife in Southern California named Laura who is struggling through another gray day of suburban isolation as she prepares a cake for her husband's birthday. Her melancholy becomes so great that at one point in the afternoon she disappears to a downtown Los Angeles hotel and checks in so she can read Mrs. Dalloway in private, in a "room of one's own" as Woolf aptly called it. Finally the reader meets Clarissa, a middle-aged lesbian in NYC in the present time preparing a party for her great friend Richard, a fantastically talented and troublesome poet who is fading away from AIDS.

The Hours intimately chronicles a day in these three women's lives as they fulfill their duties, contemplate death, and ultimately find a way for life to be enough, for that day at least. Cunningham brings a psychological insight to his description of these women's inner lives that feels amazingly truthful and accurate. His ear is so finely tuned to the subtle minor chords of a person's layers of despair, inappropriate impulse, and the life force itself that it almost seems impossible that any writer could so consistently understand the workings of his characters complex feelings: the ever-shifting weather map of what is going on inside. There comes a moment in the blankness of her suburban despair that Laura hugs her next-door neighbor Kitty who has just told her that she is going into the hospital for tests on what might be cancer. Cunningham invites us inside Laura's head as the hug transpires:

"Kitty snakes her arms around Laura's waist. Laura is flooded with feeling. Here, right here in her arms, are Kitty's fear and courage, Kitty's illness. Here are her breasts. Here is her stout, practical heart that beats underneath; here are the watery lights of her being -- deep pink lights, red-gold lights, glittering, unsteady; lights that gather and disperse; here are the depths of Kitty: the heart beneath the heart; the untouchable essence that a man (Ray, of all people!) dreams of, yearns toward, searches for so desperately at night. Here it is, in daylight, in Laura's arms."

Cunningham's nuanced eye for humanity is both dazzling and almost embarrassing in its unblinking, shameless gaze. A hug between two suburban housewives is suddenly full of poetic sorrow, possibility and a lesbian undercurrent that took my breath away for the profoundness of its feeling.

Though initially I resisted the sometimes overly reverential tone of the novel's kneeling at the altar of Our Lady, Saint Virginia Woolf and her most fetishized book Mrs. Dalloway, that soon faded and left me awestruck with the subtle mastery of Michael Cunningham's craft and wise heart. The Hours gathers strength as the various stories of Virginia, Laura and Clarissa begin to relate to each other, comment upon each other, with an almost fugue-like grace. Finally, in a conclusion so deft for its surprise, we see how the stories of these three women's lives are in fact connected in a fragile weave of love, hope and death that left me feeling simultaneously saddened and exhilarated for this chore and delight that we all face in as we live our lives. The Hours is a book that I hope everyone is able to find a room of their own so you can gather yourself close and dare to wander its graceful and human world.

Tim Miller is a performer and the author of Shirts & Skin, published by Alyson.


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