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Book Review: ‘The Hour I First Believed’ by Wally Lamb

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Disclaimer: This usually isn’t the type of book I find myself reading but my girlfriend and I have two copies of it at home so we decided to read it together. I’m most comfortable reading sci-fi and fantasy which are usually based on some larger idea in a reality very different than ours. I rarely tread into literature that is based solely on the actions of people living in a reality very similar to our own. But as a reader I am actively trying to branch out of my comfort zone. What really drew me to this book was its historical relevance with the use of the Columbine shootings as the main catalyst for the story. I recognized early on however that this book would indeed involve some larger idea woven throughout the book; an idea that is often used in many sci-fi works I’ve consumed throughout my life.

Starting with what I liked about the book: as far as craft goes I was immediately drawn into Wally Lamb’s writing style. Caelum’s narration was extremely fluid and understandable. While I didn’t really like Caelum as a character, I was still more than willing (at first) to explore his thoughts due to the fluidity of Lamb’s writing. And on that same vein, what I respected about Lamb’s writing was his consistency and ability to write extremely convincing characters, settings, and scenarios. A welcome reprieve from Caelum’s thoughts was when Lamb moved onto the epistolary and historical sections of the book. Even these read extremely fluid despite the unfamiliar voices and settings of these sections. I also appreciate how detail-oriented Lamb is. Overall, the mixture of symbols and tragedies that are strewn throughout the book kept me engaged and curious to see where it would all lead.

[Spoilers ahead]

I caught on to the core theme of the book as soon as it presented itself, and this is also the aforementioned idea that I’ve seen used in various works of sci-fi. The idea is chaos theory and it first presents itself in the memorable airplane scene where Caelum is introduced to the eccentric college professor whom he sits next to on the plane. As soon as I finished reading this part I discussed it with my girlfriend who was also very intrigued that this scene was thrown in there. While a very interesting concept, we both concluded that chaos theory was one of those overplayed plot devices similar to time travel. In my opinion, as profound and useful as chaos theory may be in reality, it has become somewhat of a cop-out substitute for an original idea. Again, this is coming from someone who reads tons of sci-fi and is used to big ideas. My girlfriend and I concluded that chaos theory’s debut during the airplane scene would likely be the one and only time it’d be used. Unfortunately, we weren’t terribly surprised to learn that chaos theory is indeed the core theme driving the story.

To be fair, while chaos theory is not an original idea (see: The Butterfly Effect), it did help to keep someone like me engaged in the story. I mostly just wanted to know what the point of it all was. The purpose of the story is not the Columbine shootings, although it did act as a major catalyst driving the chaos theory message. The further I read, the more I was disappointed to learn that Caelum is the purpose of the story. Caelum and his backstory, and how chaos is the ruling factor of his life. This was disappointing to me because I didn’t like Caelum to begin with. I didn’t like any of the characters for that matter. They were all so mundane, and maybe this is why I can’t read books like this. I prefer adventure, and characters that are diverse and dynamic. Caelum was the same dry person through and through, and the biggest adventure he undertook was going back to his hometown and reading letters of the past. The other characters in Caelum’s life were the same way; they all seemed to hate their lives. Janis was the best of them all, mainly because she showed the deepest sense of curiosity about the world and helped to piece together the most interesting aspect of the story.

I will stop there. I don’t want to write any more spoilers and I don’t want to get caught deeper in the chaos theory trap. My reasoning for giving the book three stars was this: it was all so average — the characters, the plot devices, the setting — nothing cried out to me as profound, and not until almost the bitter end do you really discover the point of the story. This book is an endurance run. I can see why some people may like it, but for me personally, it made me really happy to start reading one of my favorite sci-fi books again. And to end on a positive note: what I liked most about the book was the rich detail, the fluid writing, and the little bits of history and symbolism weaved throughout.

 

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