Yep, this is my Wally Lamb kick for the season. #31 was The Hour I First Believed, by the same Wally Lamb who brought you I Know This Much Is True. This one was a halfway-decent read, and I might have liked it more if I hadn't just read I Know ... immediately before this one, but as it was, I found The Hour ... a bit overdone and repetitive.
This novel takes us back to the fictional town of Three Rivers, Connecticut, where I Know This Much Is True was set, and a handful of the earlier book's characters, including Dominick Birdsey and Dr. Patel, make cameo appearances. This time, though, the main character is Caelum Quirk, a high school teacher who moves west to Colorado in an attempt to rebuild his marriage after his wife, Maureen, has an affair. In April 1999, he's called back to Three Rivers to bid farewell to the dying Lolly, the aunt who raised him. Maureen remains behind in Littleton, where she works as a school nurse, and ends up at ground zero for the Columbine massacre, hiding in a library supply closet as students are murdered, and expecting she'll be next. She survives, but (without giving too much away) is unable to recover, and her life is forever changed.
This alone would make for a compelling story, and indeed, the parts that deal directly with the Columbine shooting and its lasting effects on both Maureen and Caelum were pretty gripping. The couple (and through them, the reader) grapple with survivor's guilt, with what it means to survive or recover from a trauma of this nature, with the conflict between the survivors' or victims' need for justice and the wrongdoers' need for redemption.
Where The Hour I First Believed falters, though, is where Lamb tries to hitch too many other themes and plots (in this case, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the ongoing suffering of Iraq war veterans, and the indignities faced by inmates in a women's prison) to the Columbine wagon. As I said earlier, I might have been more tolerant of this had I not come to this book fresh from I Know This Much Is True, but since I did, much of the add-ons in The Hour ... seemed derivative and formulaic. Story within a story, based on the life and times of the main character's ancestor, that somehow allow him to come to grips with both his past and present? Check. Deep dark secret concerning the protagonist's parentage? Check. Sardonic main character, prone to fits of temper, but basically a good guy? Got it. Attractive younger woman who helps the main character heal, though she isn't really his soul mate? Yep. Where the earlier book was intriguingly complex, this one just seems jumpy and convoluted -- as though the author is just throwing plot twists in because he thinks he should (and after all, people ate them up in I Know ... ), rather than because they really make sense with the story.
Don't get me wrong; I still thought The Hour I First Believed was a pretty decent book. Coming on the heels of a far better one, it's just a victim of high expectations, and can't quite measure up.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.