By Michael Cunningham
I feel cheated by this novel. The sole reason I read the book is because I had just watched the film version and thought the source novel might shed some light on a couple of points, especially the relationship between Richard and his mother. I suppose it helped a little, but not much.
I think that about summarizes my entire problem with the novel--it's too short. I suppose that was in part because it's only supposed to cover one day for each of the three main characters--Virginia Woolf in 1923, Laura Brown in 1949, and Clarissa Vaughn in "the present" or late 90s--and so to maintain that the author couldn't go so much into a lot of backstory. References are made to the past relationship between Clarissa and her former lover Richard, who's dying of AIDS, and his other former lover Louis, who is not dying of AIDS, but still I would have liked to have known more. As I mentioned at the beginning, the relationship between Richard and his mother was something I didn't quite understand in the movie, but it makes a little more sense in the book. In particular I didn't understand how she shows up at the end of the movie when they seemed to imply earlier that she was dead. In the book it makes more sense that she dies in Richard's book in real life and later he asks Clarissa to call her.
I'm sure some people would be annoyed that I'm comparing and contrasting the book and movie and not taking them as separate entities. On the whole, I think it was a push as to which is better. The book does a better job, as books do, of giving characters internal life. The movie conveys much of this through dialog between the characters, which makes for better drama, especially when Virginia Woolf and her husband are arguing at the train station. It works much better in the film version when they're talking than in the novel where most of it occurs in Virginia's head as she sits on a bench. Some of the background characters like Sally, Clarissa's lover, and Julia, Clarissa's daughter, are given more depth in the book than the movie while Virginia's husband Leonard and her sister, niece, and nephews seem to get more time in the film. So it's hard overall to say which is better, though in the end I think I'm more attached emotionally to the film because of the heightened drama, whereas the book seems a little dry.
To summarize the plot, it involves three women, as I mentioned above. First there's Virginia Woolf, the brilliant but mad author who in 1923 is living in the countryside of England with her husband, a printer, and not altogether happy about it. She sets off to writing "Mrs. Dalloway," a novel about a woman who is giving a party and what all happens to her and those around her in London that day. Concurrently, Laura Brown is living in LA in 1949 with her husband Dan and son Richie and is pregnant with another child. A socially awkward girl, she seems to have struck it rich when Dan returns from the Pacific and asks to marry her. But three years later she's not happy. She's reading "Mrs. Dalloway" and sees parallels to the book and its author in her life. And parallel to this we have Clarissa Vaughn in the present. Her former lover Richard nicknamed her Mrs. Dalloway for Clarissa Dalloway and like that character, Clarissa Vaughn is giving a party. In her case it's a party for Richard, who has won a prestigious poetry award. This section of the book often has parallels to the Woolf novel, with modern characters recreating the roles of those in "Mrs. Dalloway." (Sally as Mr. Dalloway, daughter Julia as Elizabeth Dalloway, Richard as Septimus, Louis as Peter Walsh, and writer friend Walter as Hugh.) Most of the events of this section also mirror those of "Mrs. Dalloway," which is really obvious to pick up if you do like I did and read Woolf's book immediately prior to reading "The Hours."
All three sections of the book are interwoven together to create a rich tapestry of the lives of these three women. It might have been richer if the author had expanded a little more, as I indicated earlier. Still, it's a good book and an even better film. I recommend both.
That is all.
BTW, it's ironic in the novel that Clarissa thinks she sees Meryl Streep in the trailer of a movie being shot in New York. For the film version of "The Hours" Clarissa was played by none other than Meryl Streep. (This probably explains why that scene was omitted from the film as it would have been pretty cheesy to have Meryl Streep trying to meet herself.)