rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Hour I First Believeddefinitely contains all the hallmarks of a Wally Lamb novel. It grapples with fierce human emotional struggle, it uses psychiatric counseling as a way of revealing some of that struggle to the reader and to the characters, it wrestles with the idea of “family,” and it attempts to jump between generations when telling stories that are meant to intertwine between past and present in order to create one broad tapestry that is itself the novel.
Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True accomplished all of these tasks flawlessly. The reader remained engaged all the way through the novel, feeling the protagonists emotions with him, struggling with him, feeling both as frustrated with his own inadequacies as he was and sympathetic for him because of them. The transitions between time in the stories being told were seamless to the point of being nearly imperceptible, and at the end, the reader felt that he or she had accomplished a grand task of assimilating stories of past and present without having put forth nearly any effort at all.
The Hour I First Believed attempts to do these very same things. This protagonist goes through as many struggles that elicit reader frustration and sympathy as did the other novel’s protagonist. Stories from the past and the present told alternately, so that they can be assembled into one final product. However, The Hour simply does not fit its components together quite effortlessly as Lamb’s previous novel. Also, and perhaps more importantly, it does not provide the reader with the same sense of compulsion. Throughout The Hour, the protagonist is on a quest to find out who he is and who his family truly was. However, this all happens by accident—he only realizes this is his “quest,” two-thirds of the way through the book. Prior to that, his motive had been to save the sanity of his wife which, in my opinion, seemed a much more motivating cause to continue reading. Once the family drama was put into second or third place behind Caelum’s desire to learn “who he was,” I became bored. Lamb imparted all of the history through a master’s thesis, for crying out loud. I wanted to read a novel, not an academic paper!
For more patient readers than myself, perhaps The Hour I First Believed is as enthralling a book as was I Know This Much Is True. Or perhaps one might argue that it is unfair to judge a book by comparing it to its predecessors. However, I see no other fair basis for comparison, and how else is one to judge a book, when it possesses such similar components? This novel seems cut from the same mold, and in its efforts to include not only the event and effects of Columbine, but commentary on prison life, alcoholism, family structure, and then the actual plot and characterizations of not just the “present-day” story, but also the stories of several families past, I think it fails to live up to its potential. Lamb has proven that he has the skills, but this novel was a slightly disappointing execution of them. His characterization and ability to depict every range of emotion with utmost conviction remains unchallenged. The most gripping parts of the novel were those that showed how Maureen changed, first from being a witness to Columbine and then from her experiences in prison, and the effects of these changes on her and Caelum’s relationship. Likewise, I found myself wishing that the narrator would have paid Velvet more attention in the story, rather than writing her off after he explains to the reader how she wronged him early on in the story. Thus, I wished Lamb would have made her a more integral part of the story. Thus, in trying to tell so many different stories in this new novel, I feel that it strays from Lamb’s best, character-based focus, which, had he stuck to it, would have made the book imminently more powerful.
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