The Hour I First Believed – Book Review

I HourIFirstBelieveddon’t know, maybe we’re all chaos theorists. Lovers of pattern and predictability, we’re scared shitless of explosive change. But we’re fascinated by it, too. Drawn to it. Travelers tap their brakes to ogle the mutilation and mangled metal on the side of the interstate, and the traffic backs up for miles. Hijacked planes crash into skyscrapers, breached levees drown a city, and CNN and the networks rush to the scene so that we can all sit in front of our TVs and feast on the footage. Stare, stunned, at the pandemonium – the devils let loose from their cages. “There but for the grace of God,” the faithful say. “It’s not for us to know His plan.” – from The Hour I First Believed, page 306 –

Caelum Quirk and his wife Maureen both work at Columbine high school in Littleton, Colorado – he as an English teacher, her as a part time school nurse. Their marriage is strained after Maureen had an affair and Caelum retaliated against the interloper and was arrested back in Connecticut… just before they packed up and moved to Colorado to start over. When Caelum’s aunt (who raised him after his mother’s death) falls ill from a stroke, Caelum boards a plane back to the east coast to see her. Little does he know that only days later two boys will open fire at Columbine, killing and maiming dozens. Maureen finds herself cowering in a cupboard in the library during the tragedy – and when she emerges, everything will have changed…for not only her, but Caelum as well.

The Hour I First Believed centers around the Columbine high school shootings. Wally Lamb uses the names of the actual shooters and victims in his book, but revolves this around the fictional Quirks and their families. The first half of this over 700 page book moves quickly, taking the reader through the events of that fateful day and the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. I found myself glued to the pages during this part of the novel. But then Lamb becomes rather tangential as Caelum struggles to deal with his wife’s PTSD and addiction to prescription medication leading to an accident that puts her behind bars. Caelum begins to look back and analyze his life, trying to understand his father’s alcoholism and suicide…and getting caught up in the history of his extended family  – all the way back to the civil war. Caelum’s search for understanding involves long chapters devoted to his great-great grandmother’s diary, his mother’s background and life, and a mystery involving two children.  The middle of the book slows tremendously because of these additional story lines. By the end of the novel, Lamb redeems his story somewhat – finally tying up the multiple loose ends and providing some closure for the reader.

Thematically, the story is about chaos vs. order, belief in a larger power vs. fate or chance, and how tragedy warps and changes a person through time. It also explores the idea of family connections and how they shape who we become.

I had a hard time rating this book. On the one hand, Lamb is an incredible writer who has a deep understanding of his characters…and is able to translate that understanding to the reader (although I will admit, I did not particularly like Caelum Quirk). On the other hand, the book was heavy with information. Even though a writer must understand EVERYTHING about his character before writing that character’s story, it is not necessary that the reader have all that information. In many ways, I believe The Hour I First Believed was overburdened with too many plot lines. What I really wanted to understand was Caelum and Maureen’s reaction and recovery from tragedy. I did not want to know all about Caelum’s family history. I actually think this novel could have been two novels… one a family saga, the other about the Quirks and how their lives collided with the Columbine shootings.

I don’t believe a lot of readers will have the patience to wade through this entire book without skimming. Even Lamb fans may find it hard to keep reading past mid-book in order to finally get to the satisfying, albeit melancholy end. The best part of the book, in my opinion, was the first half when he focuses in on the Columbine tragedy. Perhaps had Lamb more aggressively edited his tome down to a more manageable 400 or so pages, I would have walked away feeling more positive about the book. Not everyone agrees with me…so please be sure to check out the other reviews linked below.


Read other reviews:

Bluestocking Society

Booking Mama

Redlady’s Reading Room

Find Your Next Book Here

The Book Lady’s Blog

5 Minutes for Books

My Cozy Book Nook

Regular Rumination

Bibliophile By The Sea

Have you reviewed this book? If so, leave me a link in the comments and I’ll add you to the list of reviewers.

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    • Kathy on November 20, 2009 at 11:06

    I do love Wally Lamb’s work, but I’m not sure this is for me. I just don’t like reading about events like Columbine.

    • Wendy on November 20, 2009 at 11:19

    Kathy: If events like Columbine disturb you, I would definitely NOT recommend this book. Lamb deals with all kinds of tragedies in the book, including Hurricane Katrina…but really goes into detail with Columbine.

    • Tami on November 20, 2009 at 13:40

    Thanks for the great review. They are so much harder to write when you weren’t fully sold on the book. I was not a fan of “She’s Come Undone” so have been leary of this one and now, after reading your thoughts and a few others, I think I’ll skip it. The Columbine angle sounds interesting, but I have no patience with wandering plots.

    • Lu on November 20, 2009 at 15:07

    Thank you for the link 🙂 I agree that the story could have been 300 pages shorter, but I enjoyed reading it!

    • Lisamm on November 20, 2009 at 16:59

    The sheer size of this book has kept me away, even though I read and loved She’s Come Undone years ago. Thanks for the honest review, Wendy.

  1. Howdy!

    Though Grace was very fond of “She’s Come Undone”, she’s probably not going to pick up this book thanks to your review.

    We appreciate your thorough, honest and entertaining review! We linked to your excellent post on our blog, *Product Review Round-Up* under the category of Books. The link is embedded in this listing:

    NEW 11/20-More info than prose in Wally Lamb’s “The Hour I First Believed”. Reviewed by caribousmom.

    Again, many thanks!

    Happy Trails to you,
    Grace and Tiffany
    The Uncommon Cowgirls of Product Review Round-Up

  2. Excellent review, as always, Wendy. Thanks for your honest assessment. I loved I Know This Much is True which is also another chunkster by Lamb. It, too, has a story within a story, but I was completely caught up in the entire narrative and didn’t mind the length. I wonder, though, if this one would hold my interest as well as IKTMIT. It sounds like maybe I’d do better to listen to it on audio. Something to ponder…

  3. Great review. I’ve had thoughts about returning to this book, but I think I would find it difficult to wade through that much family history.

  4. I’m still interested in reading this book, but thanks for the warning about the sheer amount of character information!

    • Wendy on November 26, 2009 at 10:18

    Tami: You’re welcome…I find these reviews very hard to write because I didn’t hate the book, I didn’t love it…I just felt sort of okay about it.

    Lu: Glad you liked the book better than I did 🙂

    Lisa: You’re welcome. I love the fat books, but if an author is going to ask me to read them, then he better keep me hooked for the whole time!

    Grace and Tiffany: Thanks for stopping by…I checked out your blog. Thanks for the link.

    Les: I also enjoyed I Know This Much Is True (here is my review of it)…but this latest one was just too tangential for me.

    Swapna: Oh, you should definitely give it a try – many people have given it positive reviews.

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