Better late than never! I have (finally) finished my first book for the 2011 TBR Pile Challenge, Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed. I loved Lamb’s debut novel, She’s Come Undone, and was quick to buy his second novel and this, his third, though not as quick to actually read them. Both books ended up in my virtual “to be read” ebook pile, so when the TBR Pile Challenge came along, I knew I wanted to put at least one Lamb book on the list. I’m glad I did.
The Hour I First Believed is the story of high school English teacher Caelum Quirk and his third (and current) wife Maureen. Caelum is from Connecticut, but at the beginning of the novel he and Maureen are living in Colorado, where he is a teacher and she a nurse at Columbine High School. The tragedy that unfolds there in 1999 becomes the catalyst for a series of events that allow Lamb to examine how traumatic events, both personal and societal, can affect both the actual survivors of the events and those who are closest to them. This is a topic that readers of this blog know is near and dear to my heart, so I was interested to see Lamb’s take on it. I was not disappointed.
Lamb’s characters are realistic and true-to-life, with all-too-human flaws and failings. You don’t necessarily like them, but you understand and empathize with them. You ask yourself how you would react to the situations they find themselves in, both the ones of their own creation and the ones that are beyond their control. The writing is strong and emotional, and the plot is intricate and full of surprises. When I bought this book I was under the impression that the Columbine tragedy was the main storyline. It is a defining and integral event, but I was relieved to see that the entire narrative did not center on it. In fact, the sprawling story covers several generations of Caelum’s family history and includes the Civil War, the early lives of his parents, the (second) Iraq War, and Hurricane Katrina as well as Columbine. It is both a meditation on the various traumas that Americans have collectively experienced and a deeply personal story of one man’s life and family history. I will admit that I had a difficult time getting in to the story in the beginning, but it’s very possible that my own reluctance to read a fictional account of the Columbine tragedy was responsible for this (I’ll discuss this more in my next post). I will say that if you find it’s slow going in the beginning, stick with it. Your patience will be amply rewarded.