Monday, March 8, 2010

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb

The Hour I First Believed: A Novel (P.S.)I would never have found this book on my own.  Normally, books about the emotional tribulations of people when bad things happen to them doesn't really pique my interest, nor do inspiring stories of redemption.  But after I reviewed Dave Cullen's Columbine, my dear cousin, the Archduchess of Lambeth-Steinmetz, suggested The Hour I First Believed as something I might enjoy. 

I'm not sure how much I enjoyed it, but I can recommend Lamb's book as compellingly readable.  Enjoyment is not a word one uses lightly when dealing with a plot involving the husband of a high school teacher who barely survives the Columbine massacre in 1999, and who then goes through years of intense PTSD and prescription drug abuse, climaxed by a fatal hit-and-run killing of a teenager. 

Caelum Quirk, that husband, also has to contend with the criminal and civil suits associated with his wife's tragic decline, as well as her later incarceration, all while embarked on a quest to discover the mysterious and secret truth of his family history, which involves some famous female ancestors from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Connecticut state prison farm for women they founded on land ceded from the farm where he was raised, and has now returned to.

The main reasons the book kept me interested were the easily absorbed dialogue and narration by Caelum, along with a constant and often surprising multiplicity of plot developments.  Lamb puts a lot of significant events into this story, perhaps too many for one person's life.  It seems a remarkable coincidence that he should discover that his mother (and grandmother) were once imprisoned in the Lydia Quirk Correctional farm (founded by his great-grandmother), next door to his family home, while his wife is also serving time there.

But that's part and parcel of this novel's thoroughly gothic charm, gothic in this case referring to the genre convention of the unresolved past exerting a crippling stranglehold on present events.  The book weaves together disparate mysteries (both literal and figurative) in an attempt to address such themes as the impact of violence, the existence of God, the meaning of morality, the persistence of prejudice, and the enormous amounts of baggage people inherit from their forbears.

Some of these themes are deeper than I care to delve into in a novel; I have a low threshold for dealing with human tragedy, which is abundant here.  But then again, the characters are not necessarily wonderful, or even nice, and much of what befalls them can be put down to their own emotional failings and bad decisions.  In other words, Caelum and the various members of his family, including his wife Maureen, are fully dimensionalized people, realistic and indentifiable, which are sometimes overwhelmed by the tragic (and perhaps implausible) events that the author puts them through.
Nevertheless, the book is moving, both in the emotional sense and the kinetic one.  The narrative spans almost ten years, but it moves fast and smoothly, never leaving the reader feel jarred, or as though something important has been skipped.  In some ways, Lamb's rather vernacular style reminds me of early Stephen King, which shares a similar narrative force, pace and plot density.  Unlike King, though, Lamb writes not of supernatural horror, but of the more prosaic horror of sudden tragedy and bad choices.  On that basis, I think this novel works well, indeed.


  1. Thanks for the shout-out on my book, Columbine, Jay. (And for the wonderful review last month, which I just saw. Wow. Thanks.)

    I have to check out Wally Lamb's book. I've been meaning to, but it's been a crazy year. I think it's time.

    FYI, my book just came out in a new Expanded Paperback Edition. Here’s what we added:

    — A 12-page afterword: “Forgiveness,” with startling new revelations on the killers' parents.

    — Actual journal pages from Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold.

    — Book Club Discussion Questions (also available at

    — Diagram of Columbine High School and environs.

    — Large-print edition now available.

    More info at my Columbine site.

    Thanks again.

  2. Thank you so much for the comment. I'm obviously just getting started here, and I really appreciate feedback, especially from an author whose work I so enjoyed. There's nothing I like so much as writing with a sense of perspective.

    I will definitely check out the new paperback edition, and will amend my review to include it ASAP. I've also just added a title link to your site to the review, and I hope you'll continue to visit regularly.