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