My opinion of Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed varied quite a bit as I read through it. There was a lot of tragedy happening: the Columbine High School massacre, the war in Iraq, suicides, manslaughter, PTSD, jail time, alcoholism, manslaughter — I could go on. It was a bit of an emotional roller coaster ride.
In the beginning, I was bored. I just didn’t care much about the characters. I thought that the protagonist, Caelum Quirk, was a jerk, and his wife Maureen begins the story by cheating on him, so I didn’t particularly like her, either. Their marital squabbles annoyed me.
We begin the story with Caelum traveling from his current home in Colorado to his childhood home in Connecticut to bury his aunt Lolly, who has recently passed away. It was slow-moving; Lamb writes, at times, with excruciating detail. He also interrupts his main story line with long childhood flashbacks, poorly written from a child’s point of view. (And I can’t stand when he starts a paragraph with something like this, especially from adult-Caelum’s POV: “The janitor at my school? With the peep hole in his broom closet?” Too many “questions”!)
The story immediately picks up beginning with the Columbine massacre. Maureen, trapped in a cabinet in the library during the shooting, is severely, debilitatingly traumatized. Lamb includes not only an accurate depiction of the events that took place that fateful day in ’99 and the names of the actual victims, but he also provides us with very disturbing excerpts and quotations from Harris’s and Klebold’s diaries, online writings, and videos. With the blurring of fact and fiction, it was at times hard to believe that I was reading about a fictional protagonist.
In an attempt to escape the tragedy, the Quirks move to Caelum’s childhood home in Connecticut. Of course, the trouble is far, far from over. Maureen’s crippling PTSD follows her across the country, and Caelum has a very difficult time trying to help her heal. She becomes addicted to Xanax and finds herself in trouble with the law — and here the book veers off in such a new direction that I almost forgot that Columbine was part of the story.
The last third or so of the book really goes downhill. When a new tenant of Caelum’s discovers a goldmine of old diary entries, letters, and other documents of Caelum’s great-grandmother’s in their house, she uses them to write her women’s studies thesis. Unfortunately, I was pretty bored by the thesis — all of which was included in this book. It took me too much out of the story and too far away from the characters I had (finally) begun to root for. The thesis about his ancestors helps Caelum unearth and then solve some mysteries of his family history, but it really slows down the story. Suddenly we’re talking about women’s prisons, the Civil War and slavery? The book is ambitious in scope, but ultimately it tries to encompass way too many events and time periods. (At one point Caelum even refers to Lamb’s two main characters in I Know This Much Is True. It’s a bit much.)
In the end, after a few more big tragic shockers, everything gets tied up nicely — perhaps a bit too nicely.
In all, the story focuses heavily on the psychological effects of violence, be it war or school shootings. Tragedies big or small can set in motion of a vast chain of events. “[S]ome explosion — as local as rifle fire, as worldwide as war — can set things reeling in a whole different direction, can cause a fork in the road. And one path may lead to disintegration, the other to a reordered world.”