The Hours begins with a reconstruction of Virginia Woolf's 1941 suicide by drowning. What follows is an exploration of despair and tenacity, of the reasons that some people choose not to continue living, and of the things that enable others to go on. Patterned as a kind of theme and variations on Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, this novel has three strands, each tracing a day in the life of a woman: Virginia Woolf herself, in 1925, as she begins to write Mrs. Dalloway; a middle-aged 1990s New Yorker named Clarissa Vaughan, but nicknamed "Mrs. Dalloway" by Richard, her ex-lover, an acclaimed writer who is dying of AIDS; and Laura Brown, a young mother in Los Angeles in 1949, pregnant, depressed, and reading Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.

Laura's small son, Ritchie, we gradually realize, has grown up to become the Richard in Clarissa Vaughan's story and, as the hours pass in the day-long story of each woman, patterns intertwine. Clarissa (living as a lesbian, so following a path that Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway was offered but chose not to take) is planning a party for Richard. Laura is preparing a birthday dinner for her husband but after a visit from the woman next door, whom she kisses in a moment of profound but disruptive empathy, she checks into a hotel room to read, and to consider suicide. Woolf, recognizing the deep connection between her mental illness and her writing, tries to flee from the faintly suffocating safety of her home and husband.

Each woman survives, and all three days end with a sense of qualified and temporary happiness, drawn together, I think, by the fictional Virginia Woolf's decision about her novel: throughout the day she has thought about her main character, and has intended the book to end with her suicide. Late in the evening, having returned home, Woolf decides to let Mrs. Dalloway live: "sane Clarissa--exultant, ordinary Clarissa--will go on, . . . loving her life of ordinary pleasures, and someone else, a deranged poet, a visionary, will be the one to die."


The shadows of Woolf's suicide and of the other death, which readers of Mrs. Dalloway will know must come near the end, haunt the progress of all three narratives. As in Woolf's novel, though, we are shown the wonder of minor quotidian miracles that, for most of the characters and for most of the time, make life well worth living.

Laura Brown and her son pipe yellow icing roses onto a birthday cake, Virginia Woolf's young niece places yellow roses around a dead thrush the children found in the garden, and Clarissa Vaughan and Sally, her partner, both bring yellow roses home for the party. In each case, the prospect of death (in Laura's depression, the dead bird, the dying guest of honor) is temporarily redeemed by a revelation of the beauty and order and hope inherent in the ordinary.

Cunningham's prose, so carefully crafted on Woolf's own style of detailed observation and precise image, enables the reader to see vividly the delicate balance between a world that has lost meaning and one where even the smallest decision can be filled with life-saving significance.

As an exploration of the things that can make life either intolerable or precious, this novel offers rich insights for those interested in mental illness, especially the kinds of depression that appear to result from external factors, such as terminal illness, or difficult domestic situations, or damaging childhoods. Cunningham, like Woolf, implies that the value of living is determined by interpretation, by each mind's ability to apprehend the small things that redeem us, from hour to hour.


This novel won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 1999 PEN/ Faulkner Award for Fiction.


Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York



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