This novel by Michael Cunningham intricately weaves the lives of three women from different eras into a powerful story of process; of thought, in life. The novel won the Pulitzer prize in 1999 and received critical acclaim for the biographical study of author Virginia Woolf, who is one of the three women portrayed in this book.
The first woman copes with the stress of modern New York living. She is throwing a party for an ailing friend and is desperately resolved to help him and have the celebration run perfectly. The second woman is Virginia Woolf, before her suicide in the early 20's. The third woman is a baby boomer housewife in the 50's who yearns for something more.
With powerful prose and conviction, Cunningham reveals the human condition by examining the thoughts and actions of these three women. Props to Cunningham for being able to absorb through the stereotypical gender blockades, these woman are wonderful characters. The tone is smooth and I am impressed with the way he gives inanimate objects soul. He writes of a dilapidated chair being, surprised it is a chair at all, and of two aloe plants being astonished to be there. These images capture the essence of moment while it unravels.
Each chapter is committed to a specific character. Mrs. Brown, the housewife, is pregnant and raising a young son. She is dedicated to her role as a wife and mother but desperately yearns for escape, a life without the typical. Woolfs character is based on an actual collection of letters and diary of the author which explore the agonizing wonder of writing. Mrs. Dalloway, the third woman, is a symbol of alternative lifestyle and the roles of being a stoic of modern times. The chapters alternate, then intertwine at the party Mrs. Dalloway is throwing.
Suicide is indeed an underlying theme, hand in hand with perseverance. Cunningham produces a leap frog effect of identity, the reader is forced to confront and accept the turmoil any moment may bring. Reading this is like a cloud graying out a sunbeam, only to have it, and all the floating dust particles revealed again.
Other works by Michael Cunningham:
- Home at the End of the World, 1990
- Flesh and Blood, 1995
- A short story excerpt from Home at the End of the World titled "White Angel" was published in the New Yorker and voted the Best American Short Story in 1989.