Diversions in Literature IV: “The Hour I First Believed” by Wally Lamb

It took me a long time to finish Wally Lamb’s latest thick tome, this time a novel exploring grief, loss and trauma from the perspective of a fictional teacher whose wife survived the Columbine school shootings. Note that this is not a formal review, but a bundle of reactions upon finishing the book…

The Hour I First Believed is filled with interesting, engaging characters who each go on journeys to find their happiness. The central three are protagonist Caelum Quirk, his third wife Maureen, and the girl who grows into their surrogate daughter, Violet Hoon. It ranges over decades, as all three struggle to come to terms not just with what happened at Columbine, but what had come before. The novel reflects on women’s rights, imprisonment, and the meaning of family and love. It’s scattered, and doesn’t follow an easy dramatic arc, but it’s fascinating. It feels grounded in the real world the way most novels don’t, with real, flesh-and-blood characters with vivid flaws. I can’t even say I consistently liked Caelum Quirk, but I definitely identified with him and understood him, which was a major success for the book.

It’s a book begging for analysis of its treatment of various subjects, but that’s not what I’m interested in doing. I’m merely recommending it. It’s a story that captured my interest with its sketches of a complicated relationship between Caelum, Maureen and ‘damaged’ Violet and how they each interacted with one another. Somewhere around the middle of the book, I lost some interest in the redirected narrative, but that was largely because I tuned out during a transition period. Once I was hooked in on the second, less-conventional half of the story, I was hooked.  It’s messy and raw and sad, Caelum’s journey, and there’s a lot of tragedy. In fact, a lot of the book is a meditation on tragedy and on whether it can be prevented, and on how we cope with tragedy.  Not just in the months after, but in the years after, in the lifetime after.

The book’s gotten a lot of flak from Amazon reviewers for its messy narrative, and the fact that the first half is a lot more charged and tense than its quieter, sadder second half. I loved that. The important part isn’t the chaos of the crisis, but how we survive after, and I enjoyed watching Caelum push through even after the ‘excitement’ of the crisis had passed. And though her journey may be a bit predictable, watching the tornado that is Violet Hoon grow up was one of my favourite parts of the book, even if she doesn’t get nearly the amount of pagetime I’d hoped.

Genuinely loved this book. If you like stories with a flawed protagonist, stories about growth and change and struggle, and about the history of families, I’d check it out. It’s not for everyone, but give it a shot.

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