April 7, 2009

The Hour I First Believed

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while may remember that I had to read The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb for my German book club. You may also recall that I detested his first book, She’s Come Undone .

I have now read The Hour I First Believed and for about the first 300 pages I pretty much hated it. But over time (it’s a big book), I grew to hate it less. Although I never learned to care about any of the characters in the book, I found myself admiring the author’s technique in more than a few places, as well as being impressed by the sheer breadth of the subject matter. Love him or hate him, Wally does his research and obviously put a lot of thought and effort into crafting this complex book. And it’s a surprisingly fast read.

Here’s the spoiler: Our hero, a HS teacher, is married for the third time in a somewhat lackluster marriage. His wife, Maureen, seems like a nice person but she cheated on him once and he never got past it. One day, when he is out of town arranging the funeral of his aunt, two high school students shoot up their high school where Maureen also works as a nurse - this part is based on the true story of the Columbine High School tragedy. Watching the news and not knowing if she's alive or dead, he realizes he loves her and rushes home, only to find her completely traumatized and unable to recover. Apparently her dad subjected her to some ambiguous sexual molestation when she was a child that leaves her unable to move on.

Side comment: Any book by Wally Lamb has to include child molestation, it’s like his signature move.

The first third of the book is building up to the Columbine tragedy, at which point the second section begins, which is all about Maureen falling apart. She sinks into depression and gets addicted to drugs, they go through psychiatrists they can’t afford like tissues and she is not able to go back to work so our hero is working two jobs to support them. Classic Wally Lamb. Maureen is extremely annoying in this section and I found myself wishing she’d just get in a car accident or something, which is my typical reaction to Wally Lamb characters. Finally she pulls herself somewhat together and goes back to work as a night nurse, at which point my own mood improved dramatically. But my relief was short-lived because, this being a Wally Lamb book, Maureen manages to get molested on the job during this fragile period and spirals back into drug abuse, culminating in her running down and killing a pedestrian while under the influence.
Now the third part of the book begins and in my opinion this is the best part because there’s finally more going on than people destroying their own lives. Maureen is sentenced to jail without parole for five years and our hero misses her but sort of gets on with his life. Maureen starts off extremely bitter and jail is horrible but over time she finds some peace and things get better. Meanwhile back at the farm they own (but are in the process of losing in a civil suit with the family of the guy Maureen killed) our hero allows two people to rent the upstairs to earn some extra cash. One of the new tenants discovers some old papers and uses them to complete her doctoral dissertation on feminine studies. There is an interesting historical side story here that includes Mark Twain and a whole cast of interesting characters that fought for the fair treatment of female prisoners. A family mystery involving two buried baby corpses is resolved. Some things seem to be improving, in particular our hero's relationship with Maureen, who suddenly drops dead from an aneurism. Our hero moves out when he loses the farm, gets his own little place, rekindles a few old friendships and starts working through the mountain of debt Maureen's life and death left him with.

The end.

Would I recommend this book to you? Not really, unless you’re a diehard Wally Lamb fan. On the balance I suppose it was a good book but it’s long as hell and kind of boring.

Let me put it this way: It's about a week since I finished the book and I’ve already forgotten the name of the main character. It’s not a coincidence that I refer to him as ‘our hero,’ I really have no idea what his name was.


  1. Years ago I read She's Come Undone, and I could not agree more with your verdict. I'm also entertained to see exactly the same elements coming up in this novel (as you note). His characters all seemed so hopeless, and the plotline is like wading through treacle. The gender angle thing annoyed me, too. I was recommended the book as a miraculous example of a man sounding just like a woman, and I was not convinced. I thought it sounded like a man writing about horribly damaged women and transferring his masculine passivity and apathy onto them. So, all in all, it was brave of you to try another of his books!

  2. Pass. Life's too short to read undesirable books.

  3. I've never heard of Lamb... However, I don't think I'll be trying this book in the near future.

  4. This book sounds super depressing.

    And why would you want to make molestation your signature go to story? Weird.

  5. Whoa. Thanks for saving me a pile of misery.

    "She's Come Undone" wasn't one I read either. But it's so familiar. Was it Oprah-knighted or am I just crazy?

  6. Love your book reviews--do you ever review anything you like? lol

  7. Nice try but you can't make me read it.


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