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The Hour I First Believed Hardcover – November 11, 2008
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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.
From the Author: Wally Lamb's Playlist for The Hour I First Believed
I’m often asked what novels by other authors I 'm reading when I’m writing one of my own. The better question is: What and who am I listening to? I’m pleased to share many of the tunes, recognizable and obscure, that helped me write Part I, "Butterfly" of my novel, The Hour I First Believed. I hope you enjoy them.1. "Gloria," by Van Morrison from The Sopranos - Peppers and Eggs: Music from the HBO Series (Morrison) Caelum saves a slot for Van the Man in his list of “Greatest Songs of the Rock Era.” Morrison had this hit with the band Them in 1964, the year Caelum was 13.
2. "The Meaning of Loneliess," by Van Morrison from Wh at's Wrong with This Picture? (Morrison) In a bluesy mood, now-middle-aged Morrison explores the “existential dread” of life’s second half. Middle-aged Caelum’s pondering life’s meaning, too.
3. "A--hole," by James Luther Dickinson from Free Beer Tomorrow (Unobsky) “Ask any of us cynical bastards to lift up our shirt, and we’ll show you where we got shot in the heart,” says Caelum, as he angrily grieves two failed marriages and a third failing one.
4. "Black Books," by Nils Lofgren from The Sopranos - Peppers and Eggs: Music from the HBO Series (Lofgren) Lofgren’s mournful vocal, matched to his stunning guitar work, mirrors Caelum struggles to accept the jolting reality of Maureen’s infidelity.
5. "Useless Desires," by Patty Griffin from Impossible Dream (Griffin) Dr. Patel advises Caelum that if he cannot forgive his wife, he should move on. Instead, the Quirks move away from Three Rivers and toward tragedy in Littleton. Griffin’s bittersweet road song captures both the desire for and the futility of escape.
6. "At the Bottom of Everything," by Bright Eyes from I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning (C. Oberst) Conor Oberst (aka Bright Eyes) imagines an airplane ride every bit as strange as the one Caelum takes beside chaos theorist Mickey Schmidt.
7. "House Where Nobody Lives," by Tom Waits from Mule Variations (Waits) In response to his aunt’s stroke, and later, her death, Caelum returns to a now-empty farmhouse.
8. "When God Made Me," by Neil Young from Prairie Wind (Young) Caelum, back in Three Rivers and now in his late forties, contemplates an earlier, more innocent youth--and its loss.
9. "Mbube (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)," by Ladysmith Black Mambazo with Taj Mahal from Long Walk to Freedom (traditional) Mr. Mpipi performs a dance of hunger that turns into a dance of love, and a praying mantis egg case explodes with life on young Caelum’s windowsill.
10. "Believe," by Cher from The Very Best of Cher (B. Higgins/S. McClennan/P. Barry/S. Torch/M. Gray/T. Powell) “Believe” was inescapable in 1999, the year I toured Europe with my previous novel and began this one. The pop star’s durability causes Caelum to speculate that only two life forms would survive a nuclear holocaust: cockroaches and Cher.
11. "My Buddy," by Chet Baker from The Best of Chet Baker Sings (Donaldson/ Kahn) My dad used to sing this song to me when I was a little boy, riding beside him in our green Hudson during Saturday errands. Baker’s songs always makes me sad, but this one’s bittersweet. I played it over and over when I was writing the episode where Caelum’s father drives him to town to buy him his belated Christmas gift.
12. "Mary," by Patty Griffin from Flaming Red (Griffin) When the shooting begins in the Columbine library, Maureen crawls inside a cabinet, writes Caelum a goodbye note, and prays the Hail Mary.
13. "A Case of You," by Prince from < i>A Tribute to Joni Mitchell (Mitchell) This Joni Mitchell classic evokes, for me, the impact of Mo’s Columbine experience on the Quirks’ marriage.
14. "Losing My Religion," by R.E.M. from In Time: The Best of R.E.M 1988-2003 (M. Stipe/P. Buck) How could a merciful deity allow Columbine to happen? Caelum’s ambivalence about god turns to bitter rejection.
15. "Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray," by Maggie and Suzzy Roche, Ysaye Barnwell, and DuPree from Zero Church (traditional) Disengaged and disspirited, Caelum gropes for a spiritual connection but hears only silence. This song was recorded by vocalists from the Roches and Sweet Honey in the Rock in the aftermath of 9/11/2001. The shadow of that cataclysmic day hung over my writing of this novel for six years.
16. "I Drink," by Mary Gauthier from Mercy Now (Gauthier/Harmon) As Maureen’s reliance on prescription drugs increases, Caelum, too, numbs himself--with his father’s, and later Ulysses’s, preferred poison.
17. "Hallelujah," by Jeff Buckley from So Real: Songs from Jeff Buckley (L. Cohen) Leonard Cohen’s haunting meditation about the spirit and the flesh has been covered by many artists. The late Jeff Buckley’s version is perhaps the loveliest and most poignant.
18. "The Ghost of Tom Joad," by Bruce Springsteen from The Ghost of Tom Joad (Springsteen) In the closing days of a traumatic school year, in a borrowed classroom, Caelum and his students discuss Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. Shortly after, Caelum and Mo will take to the road as the Joads did, yet they’ll travel from west to east.
Praise for The Hour I First Believed
“Lamb...has delivered a tour de force, his best yet. A”
“Lamb, a maestro of orchestrating emotion . . . knows how to make his fans’ hearts sing.”
“A page-turner... Lamb remains a storyteller at the top of his game.”
“A soaring novel as amazingly graceful as the classic hymn that provides the title”
“Wally Lamb is a remarkable talent.”
“Every character is rendered with vivid, utterly convincing depth....a heck of a page-turner.”
--Dallas Morning News
“[Lamb’s] pacing is superb: Sections of the story expand to accommodate a mix of characters, yet scenes don’t linger overlong.”
--Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Lamb has crafted another affecting, engrossing tome about complicated, interesting characters.”
--Minneapolis Star Tribune
“…too compelling to put down…a richly textured story...”
--St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Lamb does an extraordinary job narrating some of the most terrifying tragedies of the past 10 years....an epic journey. Grade: A.”
--Rocky Mountain News
“When you put Lamb’s newest novel down, it will be reluctantly. It’s that good.”
From Bookmarks Magazine
Fans of Wally Lamb's previous novels will find few thematic surprises in his newest: tales of family dysfunction, loneliness, sexual abuse, infidelity, and pain abound. Critics agreed that Lamb, a wonderful storyteller, allows his tragedies to unfold naturally; the best—and scariest—part relates the details of the Columbine massacre. However, not all agreed that the novel fully succeeds. While the first half (about Columbine and its aftermath) is utterly riveting, the second part—which tries to recount every violent event from the mid-19th century to the present—contains too many subplots and "fails even as a melodrama" (Washington Post). But readers who don't buy into Lamb's grand statement on the American experience should still find something worthy in his very real, achingly complex, set of characters.
Copyright 2008 Bookmarks Publishing LLC
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Top customer reviews
This is the story of Caelum Quirk -- a middle-aged teacher who is trying to come to terms with his present, his past and his troubled marriage. Married to Maureen (his third wife), Caelum's story begins with his troubles handling Maureen's infidelity. In an attempt to save their marriage, they leave their home in Connecticut and move to Littleton Colorado, where they work at Columbine High School. (Yes...that Columbine High School. Maureen is the school nurse and Caelum is an English teacher.) The move seems to help the marriage somewhat, but Caelum and Maureen still have moments of distance between them. Then Caelum's beloved aunt -- and his only link to his family -- suffers a stroke and Caelum returns to Connecticut to say goodbye. While in Connecticut, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold go on their well-publicized rampage in the high school.
Panicked and unable to reach Maureen, Caelum returns in a panic to Littleton. He finally locates her, but she is a shell of her former self. Trapped in the library during the shootings, Maureen is unable to cope with the fact that she has survived. Maureen begins to unravel. Attempting to help Maureen deal with her post-traumatic stress disorder, Caelum moves them back to his aunt's house in Connecticut. There, Maureen continues to deteriorate while Caelum struggles to keep them financially afloat. During this time, Caelum discovers a secret family history that casts a new light on everything he thought was true about his family.
You may be thinking "Wow, just go tell us the whole story, why don't you?" Believe me when I tell you that I just gave you the bare bones plot. There is A LOT going on in this book, which I think is ultimately its fatal flaw.
Don't get me wrong. Wally Lamb is a fantastic writer, and I didn't once consider not finishing this book. However, there is so much going on that I felt that the novel suffered. There are long sections of the book devoted to Caelum's ancestor, Lillian Popper, and her experiences during the Civil War era. (These sections are either provided as diary entries or as excerpts from a "thesis" written by one of the characters.) There is a lengthy "transcript" from when Caelum interviews an older gentleman about the history of a cigarette company. There are subplots about Iraq war veterans, Hurricane Katrina victims, a prison, a family unable to accept their favored son's homosexuality, and Caelum's best friend's search for love and the perfect car. In short, there is material enough in this book for about three novels, but Lamb packs it all into one. Ultimately, I think this was a mistake. If Lamb wanted to write about Lillian Popper's life in such depth, perhaps he should have made this a separate novel.
I also have an issue with some of the amazing coincidences that Lamb contrives for his characters. Isn't it just a little too convenient that the Hurricane Katrina victims he offers shelter to include a women's studies graduate student that pulls together the convoluted story of Caelum's family? And during one point, so much stuff happens at the same time that I just threw up my hands in disbelief.
But...there is no getting around the fact that Wally Lamb is a gifted writer. In the case of this book, I felt like he just had too much to say and crammed it all together into one book. I felt it would have been enough to focus on Caelum and Maureen's marriage and their post-Columbine experiences. I think if the author had pulled out three of the different story threads (the Columbine story, the Lillian Popper story, the Iraq war veteran story), he could have had three distinct and more focused novels. As it is, you get it all in one big, sprawling book, and none of the stories get the attention and focus they deserve.
My Final Recommendation
Ultimately, I cannot give this book a no-holds-barred recommendation. I wish I could have liked this book more because the writing itself is darn good, and I love how Lamb incorporates all the little details that squarely places his story in the time in which it was happening. But I really do think the book is flawed because of its sprawl and disjointed plot. Here's wishing Mr. Lamb's next book is a little more focused.
These women, who lived in the 1800's, were of greater interest than the modern characters. These women of the 1800's really took care of business, family and made a positive contribution. They displayed fortitude, committment, loyalty and other qualities that the contemporary characters lacked.
The modern characters just screwed up their lives by making dumb choices, living stupidly and blaming their parents and others for the consequences of their poor choices. Are we supposed to see a contrast?
I've never read a novel, classic or modern where almost every possible bad experience in the world happens to the small group of contemporary characters, from the Columbine massacre to drug addiction to incest to horrible deaths, etc. Usually one or two tragic events is enough to set the stage for pages of high drama. This was a bit too much drama.
When you have finished a book by this author, you want to take a deep breath and not pick up another book for a few days, until you can climb out of his stories. He has a way of writing that leaves you thinking about the different aspects of his book for years to come. A truly great writer who can immerse you in the life of his books, which is very rare.
Most recent customer reviews
all remember Columbus but then is what follows history or a work of art