Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Hour I First Believed - Wally Lamb


This book has been sitting on my shelves for probably nine months, maybe more - a product of a Borders coupon. It is the last book on my TBR Reading Challenge list, and I've been waiting for the right "mood" to come along before I started it. After all, in my mind, it is the fictionalized Columbine book and is over 700 pages long. I need to be strong for this one!

I should know better than to have any preconceived notion about a book before I read it. This was not just about a fictional character that survived Columbine. It was a journey.

Yes, it is true that the protagonist, Caelum Quirk, is a middle-aged teacher, who, along with his wife Maureen, works at Columbine. At the beginning of the story, we find them both in a state of mid-life crisis, trudging through their lives questioning their marriage, their self-worth, their faith, their family ties. And the devastating events at Columbine act as a nuclear explosion, ripping their lives and everything they know into scattered, unrecognizable pieces. The effects on Caelum and Mo are catastrophic. Post-traumatic stress invades every niche of their lives, bringing with it countless psychiatrists, drugs, depression, paranoia and nausea. In this section of the story, Lamb masterfully weaves the facts of Columbine...details that are still painful to swallow even today...with the fictional lives of the Quirks which undoubtedly reflect the collateral damage of the actual victims.

Caelum and Mo pick up and move their lives to Connecticut, to Caelum's birthplace which has been in his family for over four generations and was bequeathed to him after his aunt's recent death
. While they may have physically separated themselves from Columbine, their problems are not over. Caelum has a troubled history here that prevents him from securing a good job. Mo is not rebounding from her post-traumatic stress symptoms and cannot work. Circumstances spiral out of control, and the unthinkable happens. Just when you think things couldn't any worse...they do.

To make ends meet, Caelum rents part of his farm house to a couple running away from the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. The wife happens to be working on her doctorate in Women's Studies, and discovers mountains of letters and diary entries recording the lives of Caelum's ancestors going back to the early 1800's, primarily focused on Caelum's great great grandmother. As a basis for her thesis, she reconstructs the Quirk genealogy. The past unfolds, revealing family members that were activists, drunks, prostitutes, adulterers and bi-sexual flakes, leaving more than one skeleton in the attic. Questions bubble up to the top of Caelum's life...who IS he anyway? What does all of this mean? Why did his family keep all of this a huge secret from him?

At this stage, one would be expected to sit straight up, scratch their head, and scream "whaaaa??". The book continues to dart down dark, 90 degree angle paths, right to the very end. While I might be in my right to accuse this book of having an identity crisis, I can't go there. If you have read anything else by Lamb, you know that this is his M.O. and if you know what is good for you, you trust the guy to get you to an all-knowing, Zen state by page 734.

What we are left with is this. Engaging writing, with a good dose of dry wit and humor, about a cast of characters (fictional AND real) that are flawed beyond imagination. There are times when you aren't sure you even like Caelum Quirk. Tragedy and heartbreak for sure, that resembles an act of God in slow motion. The lasting effects of war. (War being loosely defined and applying
to two teenagers with guns, the Civil War, or the war in Iraq.) The irresistible pull of one's ancestry. The need for faith. And the joy of life.

The ending is tied up a bit too neatly, but still left me short of breath and rattled. Which I like. Want to go an emotional adventure? Don't let this one sneak away from you.

4.5 out of 5 stars

25 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

Have you read anything else by Wally Lamb? I haven't, but have a few on my pile. I really want to read this book, but since I already own She's Come Undone and I Know This Much is True I think I'll read one of those first.

I am preparing to read I Know this Much is True, but it is really long too. I'm pleased to hear that you liked this book. i will get round to it one day!

Meghan said...

I seem to have decided to wait for this book in paperback! I have I Know This Much is True but I haven't read it yet, so I should probably start there. Still, I'm going to remember your review and make sure I get this one in pb!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Jackie - I read She's Come Undone, and it was a quick, compelling (and somewhat disturbing) read. I intend to get to I Know This Much is True at some point. He wrings your heart, and while his books are devastating, they are compelling and very well-written.

Meghan - I think the paperback DID just come out! I had struggles dragging the hardback around (especially when I own a Kindle!)but was determined to finally finish it!

bermudaonion said...

Like you, I've had this for months. I think I've avoided it because of some bad reviews I've read. I'm so glad to see you liked it. I don't mind neatly wrapped endings, so I'll probably like this one. Thanks for the review!

Beth F said...

I've put off getting this because, like Kathy, I saw mixed reviews and I have a ton sitting here waiting to be read and the book is *huge.*

Now I'll see if I can track it down and at least let it have a home here until I get around to it.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Kathy - Huh! I'm going to have to dig back and see what exactly they didn't like. The reason why I bought this book in the first place was the glowing review it received in EW. But it is not for the faint of heart. It is long and emotional!

Beth - you should have seen me dragging this thing around in Chicago. It took up my entire purse (a big purse!). But, it was the last book on my TBR Reading Challenge, and was on my mom's top 10, so I knew there was no time like the present!

farmlanebooks said...

I think he sounds like a fantastic author. I'm going to push one of the books to the top of the pile.

Susan said...

I've wanted to read this for a while and even borrowed the audiobook from my library for a driving trip, but I couldn't stand the reader's voice, so stopped it after a few minutes. I loved She's Come Undone and This Much is True, so I know I love his writing style. I like quirky, surprise-you-around-every-corner books.

Veri word: imback (I'm back)

Nymeth said...

Wow, this sounds like such a powerful book. I have to confess that I've always shied away from Wally Lamb, but I'm not really sure why. It could be because his books are so long :P I need to get over my prejudice against chunksters.

Andreea said...

Wow, that's a long book. But I am glad you liked it! I am not sure if I can handle an emotional book right now:)

Sandy Nawrot said...

Jackie - this is not a gentle read. It may be just what you need!

Susan - its pretty stinky when a narrator can ruin an audio. It has happened to me now and again, and it makes me mad! The little voice in my mind worked pretty well with this story!

Nymeth - and with good reason. I tend to run from big books, just because I like to be productive and I like posting often (bad reason I know, but true). But I had committed to this one with a reading challenge, so I had to bear down!

Andreea - not sure I'd want to read this pregnant, for sure. I made the mistake of seeing Titanic when I was pregnant and I made a fool of myself.

The Bumbles said...

I read his book - I Know This Much Is True - a year or so ago and loved it. It flew by regardless of length. But from your review's plot description I am seeing a lot of common threads here. So I'm wondering if this would hold up for me in comparison. Characters who "resemble an act of God in slow motion" is a spot on way to describe his main characters!

ds said...

I have not yet read anything by Wally Lamb but if this leaves you "short of breath and rattled" it must be a pretty amazing read (as you demonstrate in your review)! So I will have to look for it. Thanks!

The other reason I'm here is because I think you would enjoy going here:http://the-clever-pup.blogspot.com/2009/09/monuments-men.html
It sounds like something that would appeal to your WWII side...

Sandy Nawrot said...

Bumbles - I've not read that book, but I have read She's Come Undone, and this guy definitely writes from the gut. I can't guarantee your reaction to this one over the other, but he tells a pretty good tale. In this instance, he does an excellent job with fiction mixed with fact.

ds - I've heard about that book somewhere! I don't remember where! That looks amazing. Thanks for the link!

Iliana said...

I think the major reason why I've stayed away from this book it's the size. I've just not been in the mood for any chunksters really. I'm glad to hear you liked this one though and should add it to my list1 :)

mattviews said...

Wally Lamb is brand new to me. I did not realize that the post-Columbine novel would have a link to Katrina victims in the story. I have avoided the book so far because 1) the mixed reviews and 2) the whole disturbing Columbine incident. But the zigzagging twist-and-turn make me want to read this one now! Great review! :)

Diane said...

I LOVED this book, but agree on what you said about the ending...just too neat! Glad you enjoyed it! He does amazing writing IMO.

Carrie K. said...

I haven't read anything by Lamb yet - but am definitely planning to at some point. Great review, Sandy.

Lit and Life said...

I've been on the fence about this one. The 700 pages is definitely a road block!

Melody said...

Sounds like a powerful book to me! I haven't read anything by this author but I've heard raves about his books. I might want to check this out.

Anna said...

I've only read one Lamb book, She's Come Undone. I don't remember much about it (it's been years!) but I remember liking it.

Wally Lamb used to teach at my best friend's high school.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

JoAnn said...

Well I loved this, too...and you're right it's a journey! This book made me both laugh and cry. I've also read She's Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True. Whenever Wally Lamb writes another book, I'll be there to buy it!

Literary Feline said...

I have enjoyed the two books by Wally Lamb I've read. I picked up a copy of this one during a recent bookstore visit and am looking forward to reading it. I am glad to hear it is a good one. Great review, Sandy!

Melissa - Shhh I'm Reading said...

Hmmm, I might have to check this one out. I've never read Lamb. I started the Oprah picks and didn't get into them at all, but this one sounds much more interesting.

Joan said...

I ABSOLUTELY loved this book! Best book I've read in 5+ years! Even at 700+ pages, I didn't want it to end! I wasn't expecting it to grab me as it did. I live in Denver and I'm sure part of the attraction was the connection with Columbine. But it sure did keep my attention and I loved the way he wrote.