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R&R 084 | The Hour I First Believed

Wally Lamb
The Hour I First Believed
First published in: 2008
This edition: HarperCollins UK, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-00-729068-0
Cover photography by Eric Albrecht / Getty Images

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Wally Lamb's ambitious novel The Hour I First Believed begins in Colorado: Caelum and Maureen "Mo" Quirk (who's a nurse at the school where Caelum teaches) are fighting for their marriage after Mo had an affair. Whether they make it or not, it's not clear to them or us yet. For now, they're hanging in there.

It's April 20th 1999 when Caelum is in Connecticut dealing with a death in the family. Mo? She's hiding in a library cupboard while Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wreak havoc nearby, gunning down their fellow students. Caelum is miles away, at the family farm he's just inherited, while Mo is trapped inside Littleton's Columbine High School, waiting (for whatever end) in fear.
Maureen miraculously survives, but understandably comes out of it severely traumatized, feeling more alone than ever. Mo's trauma threatens to control her life and to continue to drive a wedge between her marriage with Caelum; she was there, he wasn't. The couple eventually decides to move to the farm in Connecticut in hopes of providing Mo with a chance to heal.
Simply put: a lot more happens there.

I feel like I should be writing multiple reviews for this one, because frankly, it's like I have read at least two, perhaps even three novels instead of just the one.

The "first novel" (the section of the book called Butterfly), about Columbine and its aftermath, is by far the most interesting and insightful section of the book. The build-up to an inevitable dramatic event is harrowing; using the real names of the victims especially makes it all too real. It's a slap in the face.
I'd read We Need to Talk About Kevin in December (still need to review it) and there were descriptions of a high school shooting in there as well, but… I knew that this particular instance was fictional. (Though it did little to soften that blow.)
But in The Hour I First Believed, I knew what happened to those kids (and teacher) had actually happened to them. They were real, the shooting was real. It's scarier.

Lamb really immersed himself in this tragic event and its consequences, documenting the events as they happened, from one terrifying moment to the next. Because I've always been interested in criminal profiling and forensic psychology (I would have studied it instead of clinical psychology, but options were limited to non-existing in my country), I did "value" (?) the inclusion of portions of Harris' and Klebold's blogs (thus, their motives) in this book. But that doesn't mean it made for pleasant reading.

After this strong first section, Wally Lamb loses focus. His characters remove themselves from Littleton and venture off to Connecticut, and a whole new story (a "second novel"; the section of the book is called Mantis) begins.
Caelum and Mo have moved to the Quirk family farm, which is right next to the Quirk female correctional facility, an institution started many years ago by Caelum's great-grandmother Lizzy Popper. Their relationship continues to be strained. The book at this point is still interesting. By the time we reach Connecticut, we've grown to care about Caelum, even though he keeps his distance, emotionally.
Mo, meanwhile, is insufferable. I wanted to wring her neck multiple times. You can't say her PTSD isn't understandable, but Mo was unbearably selfish every step of the way, unwilling to look forward, think about her future, consider her husband, who suffered too – albeit differently. I was worried sick over her in the first part; I loathed her after that. (Then again, the story was entirely narrated by Caelum – there is bias there.)

Then, during this "second novel", Wally Lamb jumps the shark like whoa. I won't say what happens, except: could you make circumstances ANY worse for these two people? I doubt it. It is a horrible move to make for Caelum and Mo in my opinion. This book is already very loaded, about an event which has broken hearts; there is no need to take it further. It takes away from the strong emotional impact of the first part of the book. Columbine is suddenly overshadowed by a Bigger Traumatic Event in the Quirks's lives and the reader is left to wonder what the hell just happened to this book.
And while I understand that current events help to shape the time line of the story, including Katrina victims in this book is, again, too much, too dramatic. And with Katrina also comes 9/11, Iraq, another shooting………………..

And right then what could be considered to be a "third novel" begins, and it's the most uninteresting and random one of all. It's not even about Caelum and Mo anymore. That's off the table. The relationship that was once the beating heart of the story is taken out; the story dies. Wally Lamb's drastic shift of focus for this book is inexplicable to me.
Now, it's about Caelum's family and the history of the Quirk correctional facility next to the farm. A female scholar, one of the Katrina victims, writes a thesis on Caelum's great-grandmother and the women's prison, and said thesis is printed word for word in this novel. Suddenly, a book that was about a wobbly marriage disintegrating even further after a violent event changes into a book about some middle-aged guy wanting to find out more about his mother. Towards the end I got curious enough to finish, sure, but my goodness, it was off-putting. I was reading something else entirely.

Wally Lamb has taught writing classes at a correctional facility for women. I understand that it's an important subject to him. But Wally Lamb had already published several (non-fictional) books related to the subject, prior to publishing The Hour I First Believed1. So why force the subject into this book again, as well?
Anyway, The Hour I First Believed doesn't do the subject enough justice because of everything else that already preoccupies the reader! The prison next to the Quirk farm has a certain prominence, but remains on the surface. If he had wanted to write a work of fiction about a women's prison specifically, he should have written a separate novel with the narrator either incarcerated, or working there. I would have read it. I probably would have loved it, too, or at the very least understand why Lamb is so passionate about this subject. It eludes me now. A women's correctional facility is a subject best kept for later.

One final thing that bothered me a lot is that he included characters from his previous novels in minimal scenes. The Birdsey twins (I Know This Much Is True) make a few appearances, as does Dolores (She's Come Undone).
Of the two I've only read She's Come Undone, and I loved it. I really wish Lamb would have kept Dolores out of The Hour I First Believed; She's Come Undone ended beautifully, there was no need to continue on Dolores's story in another book entirely. I was disappointed with how Lamb decided to continue and prefer to tell myself that "This was another Dolores entirely, She's Come Undone doesn't change a bit". That's all I'm going to say about it that.

I feel sorry about having to criticize this brilliant writer this way, because I know this wasn't an easy book for him to write. It took him years to finish it. (His afterword explains this.) But he should have prioritized, and should have been more selective.Sometimes a book just goes nowhere; The Hour I Still Believed goes everywhere. The former is infinitely worse of course, but a book going everywhere isn't ideal either.

The Hour I First Believed is… fractured. My feelings about it are as mixed as the book's subjects are. While I thought the book was insightful and I eventually didn't regret reading it, I have never been so underwhelmed by such an overwhelming book.

1. Couldn't Keep it To Myself: Testimonies from our Imprisoned Sisters (2002), and I'll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison (2007).

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