The Hours Under Birches

The Hours

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oftentimes during this book I was reminded of Robert Frost’s poem “Birches”, where the speaker reflects on Truth of winter bending the birches rather than the fantasy of a solitary country boy swinging on them. Michael Cunningham follows a day in the life of three women: Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown, and Clarissa Vaughn, nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway, the character that connects all three lives. All three contemplate and resist the banality of their lives where even “crystal shells” are also “broken glass”; they are each trapped by the loveliness of their lives. Like the speaker in the poem, they wish to escape from Truth and a “pathless wood” to a life that is a bit more dangerous, authentic, and true, even if it’s just for a little while. The tension arises when, as in the poem, fate may “willfully misunderstand [them]/ And half grant what [they] wish and snatch [them] away/ Not to return”. Is “Earth the right place to love” for them?

This book is masterfully written, and Cunningham explores the limits that are put on women’s lives that render their lives boring and mundane, whether one be a genius or a housewife. Their lives are prescribed by men and the duties of womanhood. Virginia’s writing life chafes against that of lady of the household, where ordering afternoon tea is too binding, and Mrs. Brown need for solitude and reading chafes against her role as dutiful wife and mother. These roles are really roles as each women “performs” her duties. To contrast is Clarissa Vaughn, a feminist who lives with her female partner, and who should be liberated in almost every sense. Through her Cunningham shows how the role we have chosen for ourselves and the expectations that come with it are also limiting. Each’s life is like the birch under the ice, “once they are bowed/ So low for long, they never right themselves”.

But speaking of Truth, Cunningham portrays women honestly, and the feelings of disassociation each woman feels with their lives feels very true. I think women often find themselves wondering about how they ended up where they are in their lives, with a sense of “is this it?”. If maybe we punctured the veil of our womanhood, and reached through and past the expectations of us, there real life awaits. The puncture leaves a wound, and can we rightfully live with the knowledge of that, too?

Highly recommend.

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