Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor
As someone who is constantly on the lookout for writers who reflect the complexity and depth of the female experience, I am almost ashamed to admit that I had never read any Virginia Woolf before. But last week, when I was looking for something to read on my way to work, I picked up Mrs. Dalloway from the box of books in the corner of my apartment. I had read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (which was inspired by Woolf’s novel) back when I was in college, when the movie was coming out and Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose was the talk of Hollywood. But at the time, I felt like I didn’t really get it. “Read Mrs. Dalloway,” one of my roommates had suggested. “It’ll be a lot clearer then.” So I had bought the book, but somehow I had never gotten around to reading it.
Now, I’m only sorry that I didn’t read it sooner.
Mrs. Dalloway is the story of a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged woman who is busy planning a party. The book closely follows Clarissa and several of her neighbors and friends through an ordinary day in their lives. And that’s about it. Anyone waiting for something to happen is going to be sorely disappointed.
There isn’t a lot of excitement in Mrs. Dalloway. But what this book lacks in exciting plot, it makes up in rich and complex character details, in all their nuances and idiosyncrasies—Clarissa Dalloway herself being perhaps the best example. When we first meet her, she seems like a somewhat silly, frivolous woman obsessed with planning the perfect party. Yet as the book progresses, we can see that she’s much deeper than she first appears. She reminisces about her younger years, when she was happier and freer. She wonders if she married the wrong man, thinking about a former lover and her momentary attraction to a female friend. And yet through it all she manages to embrace life with a zest and vigor that many younger people can’t manage. And with that, she goes from being a silly character to an admirable one; after all, how many people among us can say, “This is my life, and it’s not perfect, but I’m going to be happy anyway.”
The other characters in Mrs. Dalloway’s periphery are just as fully realized: Septimus Smith, the WWI veteran who can’t seem to put the horrors of the war behind him; Lucrezia, his Italian wife who sacrificed her home and her family to be with Septimus and can’t understand why he can’t just be happy; Peter Walsh, Clarissa’s old flame who just returned from India and is still, against his better judgment, in love with Clarissa but confounded by her obsession with trivial things. There are many others: according to the book’s Wikipedia page, the book’s omniscient narrator follows at least 20 different characters during the course of their day. I didn’t bother to count as I was reading, but there were definitely a lot of different perspectives showcased, all infinitely complex and compelling.
I think the genius of this novel is that Woolf understands that each person, no matter how ordinary, has a rich and complex inner life going on that nobody knows about. She finds the profound in the minutiae of everyday life. She sees the details that most people never bother to observe, and in her eyes they are all important and meaningful.
With this in mind, I may go back and revisit The Hours again. Even though I didn’t particularly like Cunningham’s book at the time, it stuck with me in a way that many other texts haven’t. I wonder, looking back, my inability to “get” the text had less to do with the fact that I hadn’t read Mrs. Dalloway and more to do with my relative youth and inexperience. Both The Hours and Mrs. Dalloway dwell on lost youth, on perfect happiness once found but never again attained, on the things that could have been. Granted, I’m sure a lot of people would argue that I don’t have a much better capacity to understand these things now than I did at 18—and maybe, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t. But I think I get it now a little better than I did then. Both Woolf and Cunningham bring the perspective of very unique characters to themes universal to the human condition: regret, redemption, and renewal.
Selected Book Releases, August 3-9
Bad Moon Rising: A Dark Hunter Novel by Sherrilyn Kenyon
Intervention by Robin Cook
The Traffickers: A Badge of Honor Novel by W.E.B. Griffin and William E. Butterworth IV
Rules of Vengeance by Christopher Reich
The Birthing House by Christopher Ransom
The Battle for America, 2008: The Extraordinary Election of 2008 by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson
If Ignorance Is Bliss, Why Aren’t There More Happy People: Smart Quotes for Dumb Times by John Lloyd and John Michinson
Alibi by Teri Woods
The Last Ember by Daniel Levin
Of Bees and Mist by Eric Setiawan
A Long Bright Future: The Very Good News About Living Longer by Laura L. Carstensen, Ph.D.
In This Way I Was Saved by Brian DeLeeuw
Fired to Hired by Tory Johnson
The Deep Blue Sea for Beginners by Luanne Rice
Hitler’s War by Harry Turtledove
Sweeping Up Glass by Carolyn Wall
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
I Can See You by Karen Rose