Tuesday, January 24, 2012

{read: recent history and collateral damage} The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb

Wally Lamb explores the collateral damage from the Columbine shootings in this expansive novel that stretches forward through the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina. Caelum, an English teacher, and his wife, a nurse, work at Columbine High School. Caelum still can't quite forgive Maureen for cheating on him or trust her entirely and is busy immersing himself in his own life and keeping her at a distance. Then his Aunt Lolly in Massachusetts has a stroke. He flies back to see her in the hospital, and while he's gone, Maureen ends up in the library on that fateful day. She survives the shootings but they take a terrible toll on her and what remains of their marriage.

In his usual expansive yet compulsively readable way, Lamb explores human nature, the role and nature of God (if there is one) and how we deal with tragedy and keep taking one step forward even when it seems that everything is against us. I was surprised and delighted to see cameo roles by Dominick Birdsey and Dr. Patel from I Know This Much is True; they're like old friends. One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is that I experienced all these events and remember the shock and the outrage so many people felt when they happened. I also enjoyed 11/22/63 by Stephen King, which has a similar tone and narrative feel to The Hour I First Believed,  but I'm too young to remember the years leading up to the JFK assassination so I didn't have the personal connection to it that I did to this novel.

My only criticism is that, in typical Lamb fashion, he delves expansively into Caelum's past through the letters and other document left by his ancestors. I dislike the "story within a story" mechanism because it diverts too much from the main story and doesn't tie into it enough in the end to make it worth all the pages Lamb spends on it. To be fair, I had the same reaction to I Know This Much is True but still liked it so much that I've read it twice, and this is probably one I'll re-read down the line.

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb (Harper, 2008)
My rating: 4 stars

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