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The Hours
By Michael Cunningham
Farrar, Straus, Giroux. 230 pp. $22
Reviewed by Jameson Currier, whose new novel, "Where the Rainbow Ends," has just been published.

Sunday, November 22, 1998

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Clarissa Vaughan, a 52-year-old book editor in "unnaturally good health" who lives in Greenwich Village at "the end of the twentieth century," is affectionately dubbed "Mrs. Dalloway" by her best friend and former lover, Richard, an ailing gay poet with AIDS. In Michael Cunningham's evocative new novel, "The Hours," Clarissa, like the fictional Mrs. Dalloway in Virginia Woolf's novel of the same name, shops for flowers, reflects on her life as she moves through the city streets, sees someone famous, meets an old acquaintance, and is planning a party. Richard, a "man with no T-cells at all" who is "disappearing into his illness," is being honored that evening with a major literary prize.

"The Hours" was Woolf's original title for "Mrs. Dalloway," and Cunningham's use of it causes the reader to wonder if he is going to achieve his effects merely by mimicking Woolf's voice, plot and point of view. But Cunningham, also the author of "A Home at the End of the World" and "Flesh and Blood," has deftly created something original, a trio of richly interwoven tales that alternate with one another chapter by chapter, each of them entering the thoughts of a character as she moves through the small details of a day.

Running concurrently with the day in the life of Clarissa Vaughan is a day in the life of Laura Brown, a suburban Los Angeles housewife in 1949. Laura makes a birthday cake for her husband with her 3-year-old son as a helper, visits a neighbor who might be ill, and fights off despair from her suffocating marriage to a celebrated war hero. "Is this what it's like to go crazy?" she wonders, dropping her son off with a babysitter and driving to a hotel simply to find solace enough to read a book. Laura is convinced that she must improve her mind and has decided to read Virginia Woolf, book by book; the title she's up to is, of course, Mrs. Dalloway. Soon it becomes apparent that Laura exists in an unbalanced "twilight zone of sorts," moving between "a world composed of London in the '20s, of a turquoise hotel room, and of this car, driving down this familiar street."

The third tale involves Woolf herself, "craggy and worn" at her suburban home, Hogarth House, in Richmond, England, in 1923, the year she wrote 'Mrs. Dalloway." As Woolf's day unfolds, she frets about meal preparations and her housekeeper, receives a visit from her older sister Vanessa and her brood of children, and watches her husband, Leonard, at work on printer's galleys. During these events Virginia wonders whether her character Mrs. Dalloway should have had a female lover at a young age and whether she should commit suicide. Relying on a number of sources and biographical data, Cunningham vividly re-creates Woolf's precarious mental state as she tries to hold her madness at bay, create her novel, and navigate the "whole hours ahead."

Though Cunningham enters his characters' minds and reconstitutes their days impressively, "The Hours" is not without problems. There are a few throwaway scenes (Clarissa's female lover of 18 years, a television producer, lunches with a B-grade movie star turned gay activist), some unrealized and stereotypical characters (Clarissa's teenaged daughter, Julia, unexpectedly handsome with "a thin silver ring in her nose"), and some awkward and unnecessary shifts in point of view (briefly, for instance, into the thoughts of Julia's feminist friend, a woman with a "shaved head beginning to show dark stubble"). Richard, the poet, also seems more of an enigma than a close friend or literary celebrity, and there are only hints as to how his work has been shaped and influenced by others in his life.

Throughout all of this, however, looms the specter and muse of Woolf. As with the parallel story of Septimus Warren Smith and his private world of madness in Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," Cunningham uses the details of each of his tales and characters to illuminate one another. A prologue to "The Hours," which describes the day in 1941 when Woolf committed suicide by stuffing rocks into her coat pockets and drowning herself in a river, is so chilling that it haunts every mental image in the rest of the novel, keeping the mundane trivia of these characters' lives from seeming tedious or overwhelming.

Cunningham's emulation of such a revered writer as Woolf is courageous, and this is his most mature and masterful work.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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