The book I am reviewing for The Artful Reader’s Club for April is THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED by Wally Lamb (2008). By the way for those who don’t know about The Artful Reader’s Club (ARC), it is an on-going art challenge where you read a book a month, review it and create artwork; then you blog about it and share the blog in the Artful Reader’s Club on Facebook (linked). Darcy Wilkinson of ART and SOLE inspired this group and housed a blog hop on her blog, ART and SOLE (check it out) until this year. Feel free to join in our fun on Facebook.
THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED was Lamb’s most challenging novel as it took him 10 years to write, which he attributes to the declining health and then passing of his mother. Wally Lamb is known for his two best-sellers: SHE’S COME UNDONE and I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE.
THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED covered over 700 pages. (Why do I tend to gravitate toward THICK books, argh.) Lamb talked about in his afterword about is many false starts in his writing process, which I found validating as I am a writer (as well as an artist). Lamb’s effort was rewarded as he got outstanding reviews when it first came out. I enjoyed it and found it hard to put down; however this book is not for a light reader. It will put the reader in uncomfortable psychological situations and covers tragic historical events like the horrific Columbine massacre in 1999 (and revisits it often).
The story is narrated in the sarcastic, nonchalant voice of Caelum Quirk, a high school English teacher living in Littleton, Colorado, who has an anger management issue and a tender heart. Before the action even begins, he’s been struggling to hold his third marriage together….he and his wife, Maureen, separated and nearly divorced after he discovered she was having an affair and then went after her lover with a wrench. His marriage is at a impasse when Caelum is called back to his childhood home in Connecticut, where the aunt who helped raise him is in poor health; he gets to sit at her bedside just once before she dies. He was in the throws of making funeral arrangements when he learns of the Columbine High School tragedy — the name of the school where he teaches and his wife Maureen works as a nurse — on the television news.
Maureen is in the library when the shootings start She survives by hiding in a cabinet; but suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt. Maureen becomes addicted to Xanax. They decide to move to Caelum’s childhood home in Three Rivers, Connecticut, which is down the road from the women’s prison founded by Caelum’s great-grandmother. The drama deepens as Caelum wrestles with his own demons, including troubling childhood memories and startling revelations about his parents. There are moments of levity and detours into history which gives this book an intensity. I found myself eager to know more about Caelum’s family and past, as well as, what will come of his present and future. Lamb does such a great job in his characters that you find yourself empathizing for them. You, like Caelum, will find yourself longing for the truth…the truth of about living and loving and living again.
Caelum is accurately described in a NY Times review I read as “an unusual, provocative character, neither a hero nor an antihero but a regular guy experiencing both the tragic and the absurd. His tone is by turns funny, irritating, depressive and sentimental — which is to say, recognizably human. But he’s only a front for an omniscient power — let’s call him Wally Lamb — who has sought out remedies for life’s uncertainties and is more than willing to share them.”
Wally Lamb is on a mission to help us help ourselves; and, the supplementary pages are an integral part of Lamb’s novel, anchoring and explaining the story. Below is my artwork for the book (water color and permanent marker):