Well. That was… a thing.
My mum loaned me Michael Cunningham’s book several years ago. I’ve been putting off reading it becuase I knew it was going to require thinking, and possibly be quite depressing. I had seen the film when it came out, so I had a vague memory of the sorts of things that happen – and more particularly, the themes.
This year I’m aiming to read a bunch of the things I own but haven’t read. And so, I read this.
First things first: the prologue is Virginia Woolf’s suicide. So if that’s something you’re not in the place for, this is definitely not for you.
The book follows three women in different times and places. There’s Woolf, two decades before her death, as she starts to write Mrs Dalloway. There’s Laura, in 1949, starting to read Mrs Dalloway. And there’s Clarissa, sometime in the 90s I think, whose nickname is Mrs Dalloway.
Yes, this is a conscious parallel of Mrs Dalloway. Or … something. Aspects of the women’s lives match the novel, and the themes certainly do. The novel interrogates and sympathises and reverses and maybe celebrates? The earlier one. If you haven’t read Woolf’s novel, though, you will still be able to read this – it’s still a fascinating way of thinking about three days in three lives. But there is certainly more depth with knowledge of Mrs D; I had the enjoyment of my mother’s notes in the margins, too.
A dismissive reader would say nothing of substance happens. And the section on Woolf addresses this, reflecting how the “proper” subject of literature has ever been men and their doings like war… but perhaps a novel of a woman’s life can equally be a valid subject. And so, Mrs Dalloway.
Woolf writes, and is visited by her sister. Laura bakes a cake and reads a book. Clarissa buys flowers and organises a party. Yes, these seem banal. But Cunningham shows that within these everyday occurrences there is beauty, and tragedy, and intimations of death, and joy, and depression, and really everything that is Life. Because of course there’s more to their days than these actions: each woman’s interior life is explored, and that’s where the greatest tragedy and celebrations of life occur. Woolf is struggling desperately with mental illness and how that affects her writing. Laura is desperately unhappy in her role as suburban housewife and mother, although she’s not really consciously aware of that – she focuses on her failure to be perfect in those roles. And Clarissa worries about the party for her dying poet friend, sometimes feeling guilty for being so alive and enjoying life and even being a bit ordinary.
This is not an easy or fast book to read. It’s short, but like Mrs Dalloway it’s intense and dense. There’s a huge amount of description that brings to light the characters’ attitudes and illuminates the incredible beauty and fragility of The Ordinary. Each character’s passions and pains are presented sympathetically but without pathos; there were times when I had to stop after a chapter and just… sit … with the terror of not being able to write, or of not being the perfect housewife.
There’s a lot more to say about this book. I haven’t even touched on the issue of sexuality, which is hugely important although not made an especially big deal of. I was surprised Woolf’s bisexuality wasn’t made more of, to be honest; her sexuality is probably the least prominent; Laura shares sort-of kiss with a woman; Clarissa is lesbian, has had a sexual relationship with a man in the past, and I think is the most comfortable of all three with who show is, in this and everything else.
I’m not sure I love this book. But I’m pretty sure I’ll read it again.