The Hour I First Believed marks the third book I have read by Wally Lamb (She’s Come Undone, This Much I Know is True) and they all follow a theme of horrible things on top of bad things happening to very human protagonists that seem to have little power in preventing major life events in from becoming life defining &*^% storms. In Lamb novels redemption comes not with happy endings but an acceptance of what the characters cannot change after a lot of suffering.
Hour’s plot encompasses real world events which I felt was a risky choice. Columbine was a watershed moment in America so having Caelum Quick narrate life before and briefly after as a teacher of Columbine High (who managed to escape the incident due to the death of a relative) made me feel Lamb’s creative license was overreaching. After all it wasn’t as if Lamb actually knew Eric Harris or Dylan Kiebold let alone taught them English Lit…but some teacher did. Survivors of the massacre were actual friends, co-workers, and students of Coach Dave Saunders. Real parents of real high school aged children had to endure burying their sons and daughters. While using Columbine as a pivotal plot point gets the novel’s action going it also adds a distasteful element beyond a “marriage in decline” scenario made complicated by post-traumatic stress.
Even though Quick was not present during the shooting his wife, the school’s nurse, was. Before the event the two had marital issues which prompted them to move from Vermont to Colorado to begin anew. Years before Maureen Quick had an affair which her husband learned by a late night call from a friend of the man’s wife. This prompted Caelum, as one can imagine, to be very angry and he took his aggression out somewhat on the Mrs. but primarily on her lover which landed him on the wrong side of the law and made him persona non grata at his teaching job. Therefore when the two mended their ways a move to Colorado sounded like a good idea.
The move back to Vermont isn’t quite the respite the couple hoped for. Maureen is suffering from PTS so much that pain killers have become an addiction and though she makes strides in conquering her demons a stressful night at her nursing job ends tragically and then everything is tied together by Quick’s family’s connection to the women’s prison built on what was once part of his family farm. Thrown into the mix is Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, a young dysfunctional woman the couple meets as a student at Columbine, and a discovery of a family’s whitewashed past.
The Hour I First Believed made me pause many times for contemplation and although overall I liked it, it felt more disjointed than previous novels I have read of Lamb’s. At over seven hundred pages Hour isn’t a book one starts without an awareness of the unspoken social contract between reader and author. I’ll read your novel (and in my case haul it around even though it definitely will not fit into my purse) but you better make it worth my time…and on that front I felt a little cheated.
Surprisingly some of the characters in I Know This Much Is True make appearances in Hour which reminded me of how life lessons learned from I Know are repeated in Hour. I especially think it was a mistake to have a major character die all of a sudden because it threw the novel off balance. As a reader, especially a reader of any book over say 500 pages, I don’t need a “and they lived happily ever after” ending but I do need one where the protagonist I have invested time in is that emoticon guy who shrugs like “what else can you do?” If felt Lamb provided the foundation that included chucked bullets, a hurricane, drug addiction, and various marriage infidelities without following through and building the house at the end.
I recommend The Hour I First Believed with trepidation. With autumn just over the horizon this might be a book worth investing in especially if you like Lamb’s writing. Despite my criticisms it is still a better book than many out in the market.