'The Hours' by Michael Cunningham
I read Mrs Dalloway back in 2009 and it was a hard read, but you can't help but be drawn to Virginia Woolf's story and this book is a very intriguing take on both her history and the story of Mrs Dalloway. It is also interesting to see a book with three central, strong women characters being written by a man; having also read 'A Room of One's Own' I found the voice of Virginia Woolf very authentic. So the story has three strands: a woman called Clarissa, who is nicknamed Mrs Dalloway by a friend; Laura Brown, a young mother in 1949, who escapes her tedium by reading Mrs Dalloway; and finally Virginia Woolf herself, in the period when she is writing Mrs Dalloway.
It is a very cleverly constructed book, not imitating but somehow mirroring Mrs Dalloway. Clarissa is hosting a party for her friend Richard, a poet who has been awarded a prestigious prize, and she goes out to buy flowers, with various distracting things happening to her along the way. Laura is struggling with being a parent and wife, the mundanity of her life, afraid of being swamped by it. She runs away from it and hides in a hotel room with her book. Virginia is intimidated by the servants, by her sister, but manages to conceal her feelings of inadequacy. She too wants to run away to her beloved London, but resigns herself to the safety and stability that Leonard has tried to provide for her. The three stories are separate and yet linked by a subtle atmosphere. All the three women have this vague sense that there is something not quite right. It is hard to pin down quite how he achieves this, maybe a closer familiarity with 'Mrs Dalloway' would be helpful.
So much good writing. It is always the writing that hooks me. This is Laura coming down to breakfast:
"She brushes her teeth, brushes her hair, and starts downstairs. She pauses several treads from the bottom, listening, waiting; she is again possessed (it seems to be getting worse) by a dream-like feeling, as if she is standing in the wings, about to go onstage and perform in a play for which she is not appropriately dressed, and for which she has not adequately rehearsed. What, she wonders, is wrong with her. This is her husband in the kitchen; this is her little boy. All the man and boy require of her is her presence and, of course, her love. She conquers the desire to go quietly back upstairs, to her bed and book. She conquers her irritation at the sound of her husband's voice, saying something to Richie about napkins (why does his voice remind her sometimes of a potato being grated?) She descends the last three stairs, crosses the narrow foyer, enters the kitchen." (p.43)
Laura's reference to a performance is then reflected in the thoughts of Virginia:
"On the steps of Hogarth House, she pauses to remember herself. She has learned over the years that sanity involves a certain measure of impersonation, not simply for the benefit of husband and servants but for the sake, first and foremost, of one's own convictions. She is the author; Leonard, Nelly, Ralph and the others are the readers. This particular novel concerns a serene, intelligent woman of painful susceptible sensibilities who once was ill but has now recovered; who is preparing for the season in London, where she will give and attend parties, write in the mornings and read in the afternoons, lunch with friends, dress perfectly. There is true art in it, this command of tea and dinner tables; this animating correctness." (p.83)
And then again, with Clarissa in her kitchen (returning with the flowers):
"Clarissa is filled, suddenly, with a sense of dislocation. This is not her kitchen at all. This is the kitchen of an acquaintance, pretty enough but not her taste, full of foreign smells. She lives elsewhere. She lives in a room where a tree gently taps against the glass as someone touches a needle to a phonograph record. Here in this kitchen white dishes are stacked pristinely, like holy implements behind glassed cupboard doors. A row of old terra-cotts pots, glazed in various shades of crackled yellow, stand on the granite countertop. Clarissa recognises these things but stands apart from them. She feels the presence of her own ghost; the part of her at once most indestructibly alive and least distinct; the part that owns nothing; that observes with wonder and detachment, like a tourist in a museum, a row of glazed yellow pots and a countertop with a single crumb on it, a chrome spigot from which a single droplet trembles, gathers weight, and falls." (p.91-2)
So for each of them the day unfurls, then unravels and then is somehow drawn back together again. It reminds me of the idea that there are in fact only about six stories in the world, all stories are just variations on these, but that what makes the difference is the way they are told and the details within them. They are three women with the same story.The story is about the strength of women, how despite the unravelling there is still strength to hold it all together, of deciding to rather than being obliged. These are three wonderful characters in three very different settings, the atmosphere of each eras exquisitely drawn. If you like Virginia Woolf you will love this book. It both pays homage and creates something unique in itself.