MRS. DALLOWAY by Virginia Woolf

 A story about one day in the ordinary life of an ordinary woman planning a party in 1920s London.  Yet the novel is anything but plain and ordinary.  For the most part, the reader is carried along on a stream of consciousness that meanders from the title character’s mind and into and out of others that she either directly or indirectly comes into contact with during the day.  This makes for a challenging read because the tributaries of differing thought processes are not always clearly defined, and thus I often found myself attributing a particular musing to the wrong character and having to backtrack when it seemed too out of place.  Altough the events themselves occur on a single day in June, the narrative is not hindered by time or space.  Past events are recalled and ruminated upon as they relate to the particular individual’s situation at the time.

Woolf’s intent at the time was to create a piece of work that was different and that did not fit into the traditional model, which incidentally speaks to the type of person Woolf was in her own right in that she did not see herself as a traditional type of woman in her society.  In this aspect, she can claim success.  This book is best appreciated and understood when the time period of the events are kept in mind.  Coming on the heels of World War I, it speaks to the upheaval and uncertainty that many people felt at the time. At heart, Mrs. Dalloway and all those around her are grappling with the questions of self-discovery as they reflect on who they were in the past and who they are now in the present and how the answers to that will affect the future.

I cannot confidently at this time assess my overall opinion to this book.  I confess I struggled through it at times and probably would have abandoned it early on had I not had other factors spurring me on to do so.  One, is that I wanted to read it before re-reading The Hours by Michael Cunningham which was inspired by Mrs. Dalloway. Second, is that I have compiled several different lists of books to be read in the future and this was on one of these lists.  (I will explain these lists in in more detail in an upcoming post.)  So, despite my struggles, tempations to abandon, and the self-inflicted pressure of feeling I had to read the book, by the time I neared the final third of the book I was actually looking forward to picking it up as opposed to dreading it as if it were a chore. The book is deserving of a better effort from me as reader and the English major in me recognizes it as a treasure of gems wating to be mined more in depth than what I did at this point in time.  My second reading of The Hours did in fact ratchet up my own understanding and appreciation for the work. I hope at some point to return to it again and venture out with Clarissa Dalloway as she steps out to buy flowers for her party on a June day in London.

SPECIMEN DAYS by Michael Cunningham

Cunningham attempts to capture the spirit of Walt Whitmans’ work Leaves of Grass in this unique tripartite novel.  Inhabiting the past, present, and future, a separate but related cast of characters revolving around a man, woman, and youg boy exhibit Whitman’s idea that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”  Each story takes place in New York in different time periods.  The opening story is situated within the period of the Industrial Revolution and looks at humanity’s reaction to this new age of machines.  The middle story, set in the current era, presents a society still dealing with terrorist jitters and explores the dangers of impressionable minds exposed to an irrational group-think mentality.  The final futuristic setting comes full circle in that now we encounter a machine (in the form of a man) musing on the ways of humanity.

This is not a book for the passive reader wanting only to be entertained.  Instead, it demands active engagement.  Having only read through it once as of this writing, I remain intrigued by the work, yet undecided as to my satisfaction with it as a whole.  Parts of it were fascinating, yet others left me unsatisfied and scratching my head in wonder.  Whether that dis-satisfaction arises from the quality of the writing or my inability to connect certain dots is a question that can only be answered following a second reading.