Wally Lamb’s two previous novels, She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True, struck a chord with readers. They responded to the intensely introspective nature of the books, and to their lively narrative styles and biting humor. One critic called Wally Lamb a “modern-day Dostoyevsky,” whose characters struggle not only with their respective pasts, but with a “mocking, sadistic God” in whom they don’t believe but to whom they turn, nevertheless, in times of trouble (New York Times).
In The Hour I First Believed, Lamb travels well beyond his earlier work and embodies in his fiction myth, psychology, family history stretching back many generations, and the questions of faith that lie at the heart of everyday life. The result is an extraordinary tour de force, at once a meditation on the human condition and an unflinching yet compassionate evocation of character.
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.
The Hour I First Believed is a profound and heart-rending work of fiction. Wally Lamb proves himself a virtuoso storyteller, assembling a variety of voices and an ensemble of characters rich enough to evoke all of humanity.
Book Review: ★★★★★★
This a a painfully intense read, that I found to be an amazing book. It is the presentation of Caelum and Maureen Quirk, a young married couple that work at Columbine High School. The book, while superficially about the tragedy of the Columbine High School shooting, looks deeply into faith, and belief for both Caelum and Maureen — following the unimaginable.
This book is both tragic, and inspiring, and it analyzes what creates the basis of faith, and how that basis varies from person to person. I was particularly impressed with the differences presented in this young married couple, not only in light of their own individual backgrounds — but also in their different experiences of the actual shooting that brought about a sever crisis of faith.
When I first started reading this book, I thought it was going to be simply a historical novel about the actual events of the Columbine High School. But I found that that particular event, while playing the role of catalyst to everything that follows, is only a brief portion of this book. And yet, like in life, its influence is continued to be felt — like a shadow that you know is there, even when you can’t see it. And like a shadow that event continues to mirror, and reflect every other event, in both sharp relief as well as illusive images, in this couple’s tragic lives.
I loved the presentation of the two main characters, and the complexity of their relationship. As the book explores the events that tear this relationship apart — and ultimately mold it back together in a parody of everything they had originally hoped for, this couple becomes the absolute definition of what it means to be a survivor. This book is honest, almost to a painful degree.
The book also demands the answer to the question of who ultimately is responsible for events that result from the experiencing of a tragedy in a person’s life, of such magnitude that it has to destroy an individual, in order for that individual to overcome, and rise above the broken pieces that are left in the aftermath? And what, ultimately does that person become in the wake of so much tragedy — in relation to what the could have been? These are questions that have become prevalent in our society today. And while they are painful, they continue to challenge the social mores, and moral bulwarks of ourselves — not only as individuals, but as a society as a whole.
This book is a fantastic look at the dangers that exist in our own society today. Dangers to the individual, the family, and even our whole society. A must read — it is both intense and poignant throughout.
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