Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Review: The Hour I First Believed

Summary: Wally Lamb's two previous novels, She's Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True, struck a chord with readers. They responded to the intensely introspective nature of the books, and to their lively narrative styles and biting humor. One critic called Wally Lamb a "modern-day Dostoyevsky," whose characters struggle not only with their respective pasts, but with a "mocking, sadistic God" in whom they don't believe but to whom they turn, nevertheless, in times of trouble (New York Times).

In his new novel, The Hour I First Believed, Lamb travels well beyond his earlier work and embodies in his fiction myth, psychology, family history stretching back many generations, and the questions of faith that lie at the heart of everyday life. The result is an extraordinary tour de force, at once a meditation on the human condition and an unflinching yet compassionate evocation of character.

When forty-seven-year-old high school teacher Caelum Quirk and his younger wife, Maureen, a school nurse, move to Littleton, Colorado, they both get jobs at Columbine High School. In April 1999, Caelum returns home to Three Rivers, Connecticut, to be with his aunt who has just had a stroke. But Maureen finds herself in the school library at Columbine, cowering in a cabinet and expecting to be killed, as two vengeful students go on a carefully premeditated, murderous rampage. Miraculously she survives, but at a cost: she is unable to recover from the trauma. Caelum and Maureen flee Colorado and return to an illusion of safety at the Quirk family farm in Three Rivers. But the effects of chaos are not so easily put right, and further tragedy ensues.

While Maureen fights to regain her sanity, Caelum discovers a cache of old diaries, letters, and newspaper clippings in an upstairs bedroom of his family's house. The colorful and intriguing story they recount spans five generations of Quirk family ancestors, from the Civil War era to Caelum's own troubled childhood. Piece by piece, Caelum reconstructs the lives of the women and men whose legacy he bears. Unimaginable secrets emerge; long-buried fear, anger, guilt, and grief rise to the surface.

As Caelum grapples with unexpected and confounding revelations from the past, he also struggles to fashion a future out of the ashes of tragedy. His personal quest for meaning and faith becomes a mythic journey that is at the same time quintessentially contemporary—and American.

The Hour I First Believed is a profound and heart-rending work of fiction. Wally Lamb proves himself a virtuoso storyteller, assembling a variety of voices and an ensemble of characters rich enough to evoke all of humanity. -- Harper

When I list some of my very favorite authors, Wally Lamb always makes the list. Like many other fans, I have been anxiously awaiting his new novel THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED for a long time (more than ten years to be exact.) I have read his previous novels and loved them, so I was expecting a great deal from his latest. I am so happy to say that I was not disappointed.

THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED is a big novel, coming in at over 700 pages; however, I can say that I enjoyed the entire book. The novel didn't really have any slow parts for me, and it did hold my interest throughout, but some parts of this book were so sad that I found them difficult to read. I don't mean that in a bad way because the writing was beautiful, but so much of the story just broke my heart. I knew that the ending would be hopeful, but it did take a lot of heartache for the characters until it reached that point. It was definitely worth the wait, though. As I finished this amazing novel, I found myself crying because I found it just so special.

One thing that really impressed me with this story was how Mr. Lamb was able to combine so many events into one cohesive story. I was just blown away by how much he was able to cover with this novel. He incorporated the Columbine tragedy, Hurricane Katrina, and his experiences with women's prisons just to name a few. I also think his use of letters and journals to tell about the characters' past was a very effective method of telling the story. Another thing that I appreciated was how Mr. Lamb wove praying mantises throughout the novel. I just loved how the mantis symbolized hope.

Needless to say, I absolutely adore Wally Lamb and his novels. I find that his writing style is so easy to read, and his development of characters is wonderful. As I read THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED, I got caught up in the characters' lives and truly felt their pain as well as their hope. If you'd like to learn more about Mr. Lamb and this novel, check out this great "conversation" with him. I found it very interesting that a New York Times critic compared him to a "modern day Dostoyevsky" because I consider him one of my favorite authors as well. I certainly hope that I won't have to wait another ten years to read one of Mr. Lamb's novels.

THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED would make an excellent book club discussion book, but I have a feeling that the length of the novel might deter some clubs from selecting it. Despite that, I highly recommend it because there is just so much to discuss. When I finished this novel, I just wanted to talk about it with one of my friends. Unfortunately, no one I know has finished it yet! Some of the topics for discussion from this book include: good vs. evil, violence, victims, survivors, fate, free will, family, rebirth, and most importantly hope. Because the book is kind of lengthy and there are so many opportunities for terrific discussion, maybe your club would consider reading it over two months rather than just one. Check out the reading guide because I'm sure you will be impressed with the fantastic and thought-provoking questions.

This evening (January 27th) at 7 pm EST, Book Club Girl will be hosting a BlogTalk Radio show with Wally Lamb. Set your reminder for the show here. Feel free to just listen, or you can even call in and ask Mr. Lamb your questions. If you can't participate tonight, you're still in luck. You can still listen to the tape of the interview. I, for one, can't wait to be part of this very special show.

A huge thanks goes out to Book Club Girl for sending me a signed first edition of THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED. It came on December 23rd, and I think it just might have been my favorite "Christmas" gift.


Anonymous said...

I want to read this book SO BADLY! Thank you for an excellent review. :)

trish said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it! And if I hadn't gotten Wally Lamb to sign my book, I'd be SO JEALOUS of the signed book you got from Book Club Girl. Okay, I'm still a little jealous. :-)

Anonymous said...

Hey, congrats on finishing in time for the show! :-D

I'm at work, so I won't be able to listen. :-( But my friend Rochelle and I came up with a couple of questions, so I'm going to email Book Club Girl and we'll see if they get asked.

S. Krishna said...

This book sounds great. Thanks for the review!

Anna said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I read She's Come Undone and loved it, but have seen mixed reviews for this book. I think I'll read it eventually. On a side note, Wally Lamb used to teach at the school my daughter's godmother went to in a town very close to where I grew up!

Diary of an Eccentric

Anonymous said...

My Secret Santa gave me this book. I'm anxious to read it, but who knows when I'll be able to fit it in.