In The Hours, Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize winning homage to Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, the reader travels between single days in the lives of three women. The first is Virginia Woolf herself, convalescing at a country estate to rest from the stresses of London and beginning to craft Mrs. Dalloway. The second is Clarissa Vaughn, humorously called Mrs. Dalloway by her best friend and former lover Richard who is now dying of AIDS and for whom she is planning a party that evening. The third is Laura Brown, a housewife and mother in the suburban LA of the 1950s.
Cunningham explores the wonder that each woman feels at some moments of her day, but also the emptiness and desperation that can, with equal or greater power, eclipse other moments, leaving her feeling profoundly insecure and disconnected from the living of her own life. The least prone to the experiences of emptiness and insecurity is Clarissa, who is now in an 18-year lesbian partnership and mother of a grown daughter. This is not coincidental, both Virginia and Laura are enlivened by a same-sex kiss, the implications of which can not be as easily and fully explored in the social environments of their times as they can be by Clarissa. Clarissa's freedom to explore her world more fully, to love deeply both the men and women in her life in ways that are honest, seems to be a piece that Cunningham sees as crucial to feeling at home in the world.
Reading Mrs. Dalloway prior to reading this novel is crucial to truly appreciating what Cunningham achieves here. Without it, the book is a meditation on identity, life, and love, with a skillful interweaving of multiple plotlines. Knowing Mrs. Dalloway
, a reader is able to savor the echoes of Woolf's style and the small details of plot which are captured and reworked by Cunningham, particularly in the thread which follows Clarissa's day.
This novel is also one of a small group of works that expertly captures a particular moment in time at the end of the 1990s in the American gay community. Clarissa's reflections on the effect of the early AIDS epidemic, and the subsequent changes wrought by the discovery of protease inhibitors, on the lives and relationships within the gay community at that time are exactly on target. This makes up a relatively small part of the novel, and yet the particular questions about life, sanity, and the nature of relationships that the changes in the epidemic cast in stark relief in those days are exactly the questions that form the center of the novel.
This is a complex and skillfully crafted work. Read Mrs. Dalloway first, so that you can truly appreciate it. 4.5 stars.