This article by Vol-E was originally published elsewhere.
April of 2009 marked the 10th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School. Wally Lamb's novel, The Hour I First Believed, is a fictional account of one woman who was on campus during the shootings, and survived. The story is told from the point of view of her husband.
If the story had been told with the wife, Maureen, as the narrator, I suspect the novel would have been much shorter and more manageable. As it is, Caelum Quirk, Maureen's husband, has a story of his own to tell. Correction: He has roughly a dozen stories -- everything from early marital failures, Katrina refugees, Mark Twain and his dinner guest Nicola Tesla, the Cocoanut Grove fire, post-traumatic stress disorder, women's prisons, the Miss Rheingold contest, illegitimate babies, and abused teens, to addiction, and beyond.
Many of the elements that make this novel a success are the same ones that cripple it. Caelum's story is told in real-time. He is sitting down in front of you, spilling it all. Is he a sympathetic character? That is difficult to say. He is blunt and truthful about his failings, but behind the confession is a wheedling plea for love and acceptance. He can't help being angry, losing his temper, and letting his wife suffer alone and unsupported -- all this was caused by his childhood, and if you don't believe him, he's take you back a century or two and work forward from there until you give in and tell him it's really, really all right.
In Lamb's favor, every one of the sub-plots is fascinating, and each one "goes somewhere." That's part of the problem. You're trying to follow one storyline, but then have to detour into devices such as letters and psychiatric appointments. Lamb gets back on track numerous times, only to find yet another spur along which to meander.
The reader may find it useful to take notes. Caelum Quirk's family of ancestry includes Lizzie, Lillian, Lydia and , and the story jumps back and forth through time, spotlighting each woman in turn. There is, certainly, a point to all of these threads. But ultimately, it is Caelum's story, not Maureen's. Her part of the story ends on a less than satisfactory note.
In Lamb's defense, it can be said that this is what life is like. Working on mysteries without any clues, trying to keep plates in the air while the dog and cat are chasing each other around your legs and the phone is ringing. He reminds us that for many of us, childhood should be classified as a terminal illness. While we seek to recover from it, the here-and-now has a bewildering way of sneaking up and switching your medical records around.
At the very least, we can read this novel and breathe a sigh of relief, that no matter how convoluted and exasperating our lives may be, they could always be worse. We could always be Maureen or Caelum Quirk.