on 24 October 2009
I approached "The Hour I First Believed" with a great deal of anticipation, having read and really enjoyed Wally Lamb's two previous novels within a couple of months of each other - albeit almost a decade ago. To say that this book does not disappoint would be a massive understatement. The strengths that he displayed in his previous books are again evident here, notably the depth of his characterisation. Caelum Quirk is deeply flawed, but it is the flaws and the frailties of his character that make him such a fascinating person, indeed his journey of redemption and self discovery are all the more plausible because of them. The same is true of his wife Maureen and the peripheral characters (I hesitate to use the word minor in this context).
As in his first book "She's Come Undone," Lamb uses real events as the focal points of his narrative. There it was Woodstock and the moon landings, here it is the Columbine shootings and to a lesser extent Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war. Some people have taken issue with this, calling it a cop-out and saying that it renders the book shallow and dishonest. I disagree, I think it gives the book a legitimacy and makes it more truthful. This is also true of the social issues that Lamb takes on board - alcohol abuse, spousal abuse, drug dependency, infidelity, and in the second half of the story, slavery, lesbianism and female emancipation. Some of this does not make for comfortable reading, but as with the failings of his characters, Lamb tackles them with an openness and an honesty that draws you into his world.
"The Hour I First Believed" is a big book, but one that is worth taking time with. I know that some people have struggled with it, this is a shame, because reading it is a richly rewarding experience. Caelum's story will stay with me for a long time, as one of the psychiatrists said to him, "...sometimes when you go looking for what you want you run right into what you need." Taken out of context this probably sounds like a trite cliche, but within the framework of the narrative it is so, so true. I for one, hope that Wally Lamb does not have another case of writer's block like the one that delayed the writing and publication of this work, I would hate to wait nine years for his next offering - I urge you to read "The Hour I First Believed," it is a true modern masterpiece.
on 24 January 2010
I've waited so long for a wally lamb book so started this with eager anticipation. I liked the character of Caelum- he made a strong centre around which the story builds.
I really liked the beginning third of the book, which places Caelum and his wife right in the centre of the Columbine High School shootings. This was brilliantly written, never sensationalising, but giving a perceptive insight in to what much have been a harrowing and horrifying time for not only those directly involved, but those indirectly involved.
I have to say, i really struggled with the flash backs to Caelums Great Grandmother. i got confused with the characters as so many were introduced, and i didn't connect with them. As such i felt this part of the book really hard going and a little disappointing.
The book picks up in the final third, with a strong story and finish.
This was my least favourite of the Wally Lamb novels, the other 2 were just outstanding, i just hope the next one can get back to top form.
on 22 June 2009
This lengthy and profound novel by Wally Lamb covers major US events of the past two decades including The Columbine High School shootings, the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, as well as chewing over weighty social issues such as marriage, drug addiction, prison reform, the connection between ancestry and identity and so on.
Our narrator is Caelum Quirk, a high school English teacher living in Littleton, Colorado, who has anger management issues that he's struggling to contain, whilst his third marriage hits the skids as well. A series of coincidences lead to Caelum discovering that there has been a massacre at the school where he works, Columbine, and his semi-estranged wife Maureen who also works there, as a nurse, has managed to survive by hiding in the library. Due to her guilt over surviving the ordeal, Maureen becomes addicted to prescription drugs and the pair of them start to go downhill even more rapidly.
Ultimately an optimistic and uplifting novel about redemption, albeit a secular kind, Lamb's easy narrative style and awkward but likeable characters is aimed at enriching and improving the reader's life, summed-up at the end of this fascinating book.
on 3 April 2015
I bought this having read 'I know this much is true', which I had enjoyed but been disappointed by the ending.
I bought 'The hour I first believed' expecting a personal account of a fictional Columbine survivor.
Approx the first fifth of the book is pre-Columbine and develops the main character, and his relationships with his wife and family.
The next section is given over to Columbine, and long transcripts of the actual killer's videos and diaries. This is space which could have been used to give the character's reactions rather than reproducing information available outside of this book.
Then the book skips ahead a significant period, with Columbine being referenced as the "bifurcation" point of their lives, but this seems to be pushed into the background with all of the many themes which are subsequently shoe-horned into this book: drugs, death, law-suits, illegitimacy, family lost and found, infidelity, family trees, PTSD, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War. In addition to the overly busy plot, the narrative skips between the main character's viewpoint, letters and diaries from the 1800s, newspaper articles, excerpts from faux books, transcripts from the Columbine killers' journals, the whole of someone's PhD thesis.
As a result it is hard to get invested in any of the characters, of which there are too many spanning hundreds of years. Unfortunately I was skim-reading this book from about halfway through and lost interest in what happened to them.
I would give the author another go as I enjoyed one of his other books until the ending, and the first part of this one, but I was disappointed with most of this book.
on 19 June 2014
Actually I'd have enjoyed this more if it was the three books it was supposed to be. The stories do twist together but it is difficult to get into all three. As a trilogy it would be better to take. I read a lot and am degree level educated so challenging reads aren't a mystery to me but I couldn't get my head round this one. Don't give up on Wally Lamb though. His stories are often drawn out as this one is but usually worth sticking with. That said, this one does conclude beautifully which is why it gets good reviews I think.
Stuff happens. A butterfly flaps its wings in China and two disaffected teenagers go on a killing spree at Columbine High School. If Caelum Quirk's aunt in Connecticut hadn't had a stroke a few days earlier, he would be teaching his literature class at Columbine. If Maureen Quirk had been able to get an earlier flight, she wouldn't have been hiding in a cupboard in the school library.
Those few hours in the library placed Maureen and Caelum at the centre of a labyrinth that they will spend the rest of their lives trying escape. As they search for the threads that will lead them to the exit, medication and therapy fail. Gradually Caelum turns to stories as a way of understanding the couple's personal nightmare and the chaos that is starting to engulf their country. Drawing on everything from Greek and Hindu mythology to the unfolding history of Caelum's family and the personal stories of other "lost" people, Caelum and Maureen embark on an epic journey out of chaos.
"The Hour I First Believed" is about the cumulative effect of apparently arbitrary events on the lives of individuals, families and communities. More importantly, and more powerfully, it's about the enduring power of stories to help us make sense of the incomprehensable.
I've given this four stars rather five because the prose occasionally rambles and I did get slightly lost at times in the Quirk family tree, but this is still well worth reading. I finished this book two weeks ago and I'm still thinking about it.
on 19 March 2014
Superficially the subject of the book seems quickly to be very negative. There are so many tragedies that befall the main characters it doesn't seem possible that there can be anything rewarding, but there is. I didn't put the book down feeling uplifted, or brimming with energy, but i did gain a strangely warm sense of introspection.
I liked the direction it took and that i finished reading feeling that it was complete rather than finished. No loose ends, no cliff hangers, just life carrying on because that is what it does.
on 2 July 2016
Wally Lamb never fails to deliver.
His story is a mixture of fiction wrapped in some factual events.
The characters are well rounded, beautifully described and magnificently placed within the narrative.
I will continue to read WL until his river runs dry-which I hope is never.
on 11 May 2009
Like many of Wally Lamb's fans, I waited with great anticipation for this book to come out. I had read his two previous novels, She's Come Undone (just okay in my opinion) and I Know This Much Is True (a great read), and was wondering if this next one would put Lamb on the list as one of my admired authors. Based on I Know This Much Is True, I knew he had great potential to be added to a list that includes such esteemed authors as Pat Conroy and John Irving. Unfortunately, with this latest offering, Lamb does not make the cut. Not only does he not make the cut, but, after spending hours upon hours reading this book, I'm not even sure if I'd give him another chance. That's how much I did not like this book.
It all started with the writing which, in many places, can only be called "fractured". I found this kind of writing to be very disconcerting within the context of the story. Here are some examples and these are the actual sentences: Last night? I got up and started combing her hair. And here's another: A maintenance crew, from the looks of it, nine or ten women with shovels, hoes and hedge cutters. Now I ask you all....where is the verb in this last sentence? This went on and on throughout the entire book. Then, as if that wasn't bad enough, Lamb constantly repeats himself. He tells a story of Zinnia always hugging Caelum on page 124 and had already told the exact same story earlier in the book. This was done numerous times and it ultimately began to feel like deja vu.
As with many authors who write a great book and get much publicity for doing so (Oprah pick), it must be hard to pen that next book trying to make sure it lives up to the all the adulation the author received from his last book. I think the "Aftermath" section of this book explains this fear and Lamb's own trepidations in trying to come up with a "story". They latch onto something that "might" work and then weave other stories into it. In this case, the author has taken every tragedy imaginable....The Civil War, The Korean War, Columbine, 9/11, The War in Iraq, Katrina....and made it all part of this story. The end result is.....it doesn't work!!!!
In my opinion, one of the most important jobs of an author, especially an author who is asking his reader to invest hours and hours of their time on a 700+ page book, is to create characters and develop them in such a way that the reader feels invested. This is the story of forty-seven year old thrice married Caelum Quirk and his younger wife Maureen, who move to Columbine, Colorado after an unfortunate set of circumstances forces them to leave their home in Three Rivers, Connecticut. For as long as I can remember, I've always associated "Three Rivers" with the city of Pittsburgh. Let's face it, the Pittsburgh Pirates played in Three Rivers Stadium for thirty years. Pittsburgh is famous for its three waterways....the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers. Yet Lamb has "his" Three Rivers located in Connecticut. I can't tell you how unsettling this was for me every time Three Rivers was mentioned. I had to keep reminding myself that they weren't in Pennsylvania but in Connecticut.
There wasn't one minute that I liked either Caelum or Maureen or any of the other myriad of characters who entered these pages. Since you know right away that they're moving to Columbine, you immediately know there are going to be characters there that you won't like either. Even though Maureen is in the school at the time of the shootings, I never felt any empathy for her even though she had been through a horrendous experience. And Maureen and Caelum's relationship was never developed enough for her own husband to feel the empathy Lamb is obviously expecting his reader to offer up.
This book will take the married couple from Connecticut to Colorado and back to Connecticut. It will also take the reader back in time as Caelum explores his heritage after finding some interesting items in his aunt's attic. As Caelum investigates his heritage, as a reader, I got confused keeping everyone straight. The reason for this is that Lamb has given everyone of the narrator's female relatives a name beginning with the letter "L". We have Lizzie, Lolly, Lydia and Lillian. After awhile, I didn't know who was who.
And to me the biggest mistake an author of fiction can make is inserting his own political beliefs into the novel. Once an author does this, whether I agree with his beliefs or not, I'm turned off. Richard North Patterson used to be one of my favorite authors but, with each book he wrote, he jammed his politics down my throat. I haven't read another book of his since. Unfortunately, Lamb has fallen into the same category with me. If he wants to be political, he should write some Op Ed pieces for the New York Times....not insert his views within the fictional pages of his book.
In closing, I don't know how so many reviewers can state that Wally Lamb is their favorite author before even reading this book. Their favorite author of what??? Two books?? (By the way, these last two fractured sentences are reminiscent of Lamb's writing if you're wondering why I did this). If I was going to claim that someone was my favorite author, I think I'd like to have read more than two of their works. I could say that Pat Conroy is a favorite author of mine as is John Irving and Joyce Carol Oates. Each of these authors has many, many books in their repertoire and I've read almost all of them.
I think that in the case of this book, I would have liked to have known the ending before reading the middle because it might have explained a lot and perhaps I might have enjoyed it more. I'm not sure. The jury is still out on Lamb as far as I'm concerned. He needs to come up with a much better book to seal his rank as an author whose books I must read.
on 21 June 2012
I struggled on to the bitter end with this... Thought we might be on the home straight once the shooting was out of the way (and agree that this section was well written). Instead it marked the point at which I ceased to have any idea what I was meant to take from it all. Glimmers of the Wally Lamb who wrote "I Know This Much is True" - one of my all-time favourite novels - but where was the editor? Lamb's notes indicate that he spent a very, very long time writing this - it shows. I can't help feeling that it would have benefitted from losing a few hundred pages. So disappointed!