three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
By: 
Wally Lamb
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-The Hour I First BelievedWally Lamb is the author of two best-selling novels blessed by Oprah’s Book Club: She’s Come Undone (1992) and I Know This Much Is True (1998).

The Story: Maureen Quirk, a school nurse, survives the devastating 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, but is forever traumatized. She and her husband Caelum return to his family farm in Connecticut to heal the wounds and try to save their marriage. While Maureen recovers, Caelum discovers a bunch of old diaries and letters that reveals his family history since the mid-19th century. Moving back and forth in time, Caelum explores this story—from the Civil War to Korea, Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and 9/11, to suicide, drugs, scandal, and tragedy—the "collateral damage" of our times. As he discovers the secrets, guilt, and anger of five generations, he embarks on a search for personal meaning.
Harper. 752 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 0060393491

Entertainment Weekly 4.5 of 5 Stars
"… a tour de force. The Hour I First Believed is his best yet." Tina Jordan

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"[Lamb] assaults his characters—and his readers—with despair and loneliness and pain. But the beauty of The Hour I First Believed, a soaring novel as amazingly graceful as the classic hymn that provides the title, is that Lamb never loses sight of the spark of human resilience." Connie Ogle

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It seems that Lamb has taken most of the subjects that crossed his field of vision during the past decade and found them a place in The Hour I First Believed. His specialty has always been writing beautifully in the voices of damaged people, and in the new novel those injured ones line up like dominoes." Janet Okoben

Denver Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Reading this novel is like looking into an abyss, confronting some events that are tragic and others that are just difficult—and trying to find a way to live. … Where the story weakens is in the latter part of the novel, when Lamb departs from Caelum’s story to pursue a strand involving his great- and great-great-grandmothers." Robin Vidimos

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A novel of this length, filled with one troubled soul after another, could take an eternity to get through. … But to use an age-old cliché, it’s a page-turner—at times a depressing page-turner, but a page-turner nonetheless." Craig Wilson

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"But although the book is the long, luxurious and enjoyable read that Lamb fans have come to love, The Hour I First Believed ultimately fails to tie [the shootings at Columbine, the 9/11 attacks, and Hurricane Katrina] together into a coherent statement on the contemporary American experience. Instead, Lamb has crafted another affecting, engrossing tome about complicated, interesting characters—with what amounts to the narrative equivalent of a distracting CNN crawl running across the bottom of the page." Cherie Parker

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"A great story is buried in Wally Lamb’s avalanche of a novel, The Hour I First Believed, but only the most determined readers will manage to dig it out. … The most terrifying section of The Hour I First Believed is essentially a docudrama of the Columbine massacre, describing the actual events, naming the real victims and heroes and providing chilling excerpts from Klebold’s and Harris’s journals and videotapes." Ron Charles

Critical Summary

Fans of Wally Lamb’s previous novels will find few thematic surprises in his newest: tales of family dysfunction, loneliness, sexual abuse, infidelity, and pain abound. Critics agreed that Lamb, a wonderful storyteller, allows his tragedies to unfold naturally; the best—and scariest—part relates the details of the Columbine massacre. However, not all agreed that the novel fully succeeds. While the first half (about Columbine and its aftermath) is utterly riveting, the second part—which tries to recount every violent event from the mid-19th century to the present—contains too many subplots and "fails even as a melodrama" (Washington Post). But readers who don’t buy into Lamb’s grand statement on the American experience should still find something worthy in his very real, achingly complex, set of characters.