Friday, January 23, 2009

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb

Wally Lamb is a master storyteller. Just a few pages into his new novel, The Hour I First Believed, it was obvious that he's done it again.

The novel centers around Caelum Quirk, a 47-year-old high school English teacher, and his third wife Maureen, a school nurse, both of whom work at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Maureen is at school during the infamous shootings of 1999, while Caelum is back in Connecticut dealing with the illness of an aunt who helped raise him. After a brutal description of the shootings, the couple tries to pull their lives back together. Maureen (and Caelum, to a lesser extent) struggles with the effects of PTSD and Caelum uncovers a mystery as he pieces together several generations of family history.

These fictional characters are woven into the fabric of the 21st century (9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the war on terror), while Caelum's ancestors attend a dinner party at the home of Mark Twain, are present at the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, and take part in the Rheingold Girl competition. Lamb sprinkles the text with e-mails, a medical questionaire, newspaper articles, a dissertation, and many letters as the story moves along. I was also impressed with his ability to shift the narrative voice, so easily and convincingly, to the 12-year-old Caelum in chapter 4.

This novel deals with topics of family relationships and ancestral "pull", psychology, mythology, chaos-complexity theory, as well as strong themes of spirituality. There is just SO much here, that it probably could have been TWO novels. I got a little bogged down around page 400, but that is only a minor complaint. All of the pieces together build to an extremely powerful ending - the first book in a long time that's made me cry.

Here is one quote I particularly liked. On page 717, Caelum talks about teaching writing:

" helps them, you know? Gives them wings, so that they can rise above
the confounding maze of their lives and, from that perspective, begin to see the
patterns and dead ends of their pasts, and a way out."

I have enjoyed all three of Wally Lamb's novels, and hope I don't have to wait ten years for the fourth. My rating for The Hour I First Believed is 4.5/5 .


  1. I loved this book as well. One of the best books I've read in 2009.

  2. Hi Julie - This ended up on my 'best of' list this year, too. I just left a message on your blog (which I just discovered!) saying the same thing.

    I also enjoyed Lamb's new book, Wishin' and Hopin', when I read it just before Christmas.


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