Published by Harper Collins on March 6, 2009
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Psychological, Historical
Wally Lamb has mastered writing addictive trauma porn. The Hour I First Believed includes the Columbine shooting, alcoholism, infidelity, Hurricane Katrina, homeless children, child prostitution, unexpected deaths, prescription drug addiction, injustices in women’s prisons and family secrets. I don’t find the characters likeable, but they feel immensely human. And the numerous Connecticut references (so many UConn basketball shoutouts) are great! Wally Lamb’s third novel doesn’t live up to the perfection of She’s Come Undone or I Know This Much is True, but it is still an engrossing and worthwhile read. Fun story: in 2011 I served Wally Lamb wine at a community art event in Willimantic, CT.
The Hour I First Believed is a sprawling novel, so it is challenging to write a brief synopsis. The protagonist is Caelum Quirk, an English teacher now in his third marriage. Him and his wife, Maureen, have reconciled after infidelity separated them for a few years. They move from Connecticut to Colorado where they both work at Columbine High School. Caelum returns to Connecticut after his Aunt Lolly dies. While he is away, Maureen survives the horrific Columbine school shooting. After the tragedy Caelum tries to help Maureen recover from the traumatic event. Caelum and Maureen also have a close relationship with Velvet, a troubled student who also survived the shooting. Caelum and Maureen move into Aunt Lolly’s house in Connecticut to have a fresh start after the shooting. While going through his aunt’s belongings Caelum uncovers generations of family stories and secrets. This being a Wally Lamb book Caelum and Maureen continue to face tragedy after tragedy.
Wally Lamb does ample research for his novels. It’s rare to see a piece of fiction with such a long list of citations. I also appreciate how Lamb includes a list of charities at the end of his book. These charities focus on social issues that are featured in The Hour I First Believed. I think the research and list of charities shows Lamb’s respect and compassion for the sensitive topics his book covers. I appreciate the way Lamb ends his trauma filled books on a hopeful note. This sends the message that humans can overcome unimaginable trauma. In contrast the questionably exploitative Hanya Yanagihara leaves her queer characters broken with no hope of recovery (A Little Life is a trash book, maybe one day I’ll get around to writing a rant). Lastly, Wally Lamb’s books are so addicting, I can’t put them down!
The Hour I First Believed would be an even better book with some more editing. Lamb tries to tie together too many story threads. I think he overreaches a bit. I think Lamb was trying to weave a tapestry of trauma that spanned from past to present. Some editing down would have resulted in a tighter story with stronger, more distinct themes. Specifically, I think the excerpts of letters and the thesis involving Caelum’s ancestors. Those long sections were jarring and interrupted the present-day story without feeling relevant.