Thursday, September 27, 2012

Book Review: The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb

Title: The Hour I First Believed
Author: Wally Lamb
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: November 11, 2008
Source: Personal purchase

Plot summary from Goodreads:

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.
My Review:

Before I start any Wally Lamb novel, he's already got an "in" with me.  First, he bases many of his books in or around Three Rivers, Connecticut--a fictional town that is actually meant to mirror one very close to my hometown of Groton, Connecticut.  He throws in a lot of local references, which I eat right up.  And second, he used to teach at UConn (my alma mater), and a fellow member of the Husky community always gets some love from me.

But enough I-love-Connecticut jibber-jabber--on to the actual review!

This is not a book about Columbine, per se, though that is what originally drew me to it (I was a sophomore in high school when that happened, and thus it hit a bit close to home for me).  While that event is the trigger for everything else that happens in the novel, very little time is spent on that specific ordeal. This is more a novel about how one family had to deal with the effects of Columbine over a lifetime--how those events scarred them and changed their paths in countless ways.

If you've read Lamb's  I Know This Much Is True , you'll find the format somewhat similar. Tragic crazy event right at the beginning, protagonist who thinks he's got his stuff together but is really battling a lot of demons, and a historical side-story that ties into the ending. You'll even recognize some of the characters (the Birdsey twins make several appearances). I have to say that while I enjoyed the ties to the previous novel, I was a little turned off by the repeating format.  I expected more from Lamb, given that he had 700+ pages to come up with something totally different. I didn't think he would fall in to the formulaic category, and it seemed like an odd choice, since the subject matter could be taken in so many varied directions.

However, unlike some other authors I've read who stick with a plot formula, I liked this one anyway because the content was just that good. Lamb is a master of delving into the emotional complexity of any situation. The Columbine event is dealt with perfectly; it fits into the plot without overwhelming it. I didn't love Caelum (the main character), but I'm sure that was not an accident on the author's part.  There were a few slower sections (700+ pages can't be action-packed all the time, I suppose), but I felt invested enough in the characters that those sections didn't discourage me.

Overall, if you're looking for a good character-driven drama, this is pretty epic in scope.  I'd recommend trying I Know This Much Is True first (if you want the overlapping-characters effect) but otherwise, this is a great novel on its own.


  1. The part of this book that stuck with me the most, actually was the part about Columbine and the two shooters. I totally agree that Lamb is a master at emotional complexity (perfect way of putting that, actually). I always feel so worn out after reading his books, but enjoy them quite a bit!

    1. I agree about feeling "worn out", that's a good way of describing it! In a good way of course...haha.

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