Cover Image: Blue Hours

Blue Hours

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Daphne Kalotay never had a particular affinity for literature or writing. But when she took a creative writing elective by chance at Vassar, that changed. Since she had already run out the clock for her undergraduate degree in psychology, she decided to pursue her Master of Fine Arts at Boston University. But even with a master's degree, starting a writing career without the mental catalog of literary canon to lean on felt daunting. So she jumped at BU's offer in 1994 of full funding for a doctorate in modern and contemporary literature that would give her that chance to read and learn.

Under Professor Saul Bellow, Kalotay wrote her dissertation about the author Mavis Gallant. Gallant’s work explored how world wars leave residual effects on the individual level, and explores the ways people persist afterward. Kalotay admires her ability to incorporate humor into the subject; Gallant’s light touch shows that recuperation isn’t all sadness and heaviness. “I suspect [the] reason I loved Mavis Gallant’s writing is because my own family was shaped by war,” Kalotay said over the phone.

Kalotay’s father was born to a Jewish family in 1941 Hungary. While he survived Holocaust, his father and many other relatives did not. Life continued without his family. He lived in occupied Hungary when the Soviets took over. He witnessed more violence when Hungarian Revolution tried to throw overthrow Soviet interference in 1956. The Kalotays finally fled to North America as refugees. War had a domino effect on their lives — it wasn't a contained incident.

As Kalotay talked about her family history, she got quieter. The pauses between her sentences got longer with each progressive detail. This wasn’t a story of the distant past — it was a generational trauma at the forefront of her emotional reservoir.

Kalotay channels that personal nature of war through two characters in her latest novel, "Blue Hours," which came out this summer. The story’s protagonist, Mim, finds herself compelled to help the friends from her youth, from bonds forged strong enough to weather a decades-long separation. The novel spans two timelines: one during 1990s New York City, where Mim comes of age post-college, and the other during 2012, when Mim is forced to reckon with the United States’ endless war with Afghanistan.

In New York, Mim watches her roommate, Carl, a friend and veteran from the Gulf War, suffer from PTSD. His nightmares propel him into thinking Mim is a threat. The trauma cuts deep for a soldier on leave from a war which the U.S. framed as “a small quick triumph where we were heroes,” Kalotay said. “Later, we were told just about oil.”

Then in 2012, Mim’s ex-girlfriend Kyra goes missing in Afghanistan after dedicating her life to humanitarian aid in the very countries the U.S. has been sending troops and causing political unrest. Throughout those 20-some-odd-years, Mim has the luxury of forgetting that the U.S. was even at war, while Carl and Kyra are haunted by it daily. “Even decisions to not care and not pay attention are political decisions,” Kalotay said. “We’re [in Afghanistan]. That’s the American story.”

Unlike Mim, Kalotay has never lost touch with the support systems she once relied on. Before the seed for "Blue Hours" had even been planted, Kalotay helped cultivate the growth of her literary community in Boston. During the intense year of her MFA program, she bonded with the 11 other people in her fiction cohort who became her lifelong friends. One of those friends later became an early reader of "Blue Hours." Not long after her doctorate, she was one of the first writing teachers at Grub Street when it began in 1997. Kalotay has also carved out her own legacy in the Boston literary community. Several years ago, she began a charrette for local writers to discuss their craft.

What began as an informal chat between 11 women has evolved to a monthly workshop with over 40 writers, with a wait list at the ready for when a vacancy opens up. The premise has stayed the same: the group generates a topic of discussion (i.e. experimental form, or plot arcs, or unreliable narrators), and Kalotay sends out an email prior to the meeting with a brief description and links to further essays about and examples of the topic. Writers will start the conversation online, carry it over to the in-person meeting, and then Kalotay will follow up with an email summarizing the meeting for anyone who could not attend in person. The charrettes foster community and support among fellow writers just as her MFA cohort once had.

To this day, when friends from Kalotay’s cohort say they’ll show up to each other’s readings, they mean it. It's easy to see how this type of community support keeps Kalotay going as she grapples with darker themes in her work.
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Although this novel had some potentially important and interesting themes, it failed to engage or convince me and I was left feeling disappointed. The story centres on Mim and a group of young graduates setting out on life in 1990s New York. Mim meets Kyra, a dancer, and becomes passionately attached to her. Then Kyra leaves suddenly and the next we hear of her it’s 20 years later and she has disappeared in Afghanistan where she has been an aid worker. That’s giving quite a lot of the plot away but the synopsis on Amazon and elsewhere unashamedly does so too. For me the two halves of the book just didn’t hang together. The first half is interesting enough with a range of characters – although as we see them from Mim’s (mostly dense) point of view, none of them are fully developed. Kyra too remains under-developed and no attempt is made to explore how she turns from successful dancer into aid worker. The second half of the book describes Mim’s quest to find her friend in war-torn Afghanistan, which ought to have been exciting but simply wasn’t. Mim’s adventures are related in a cold, dispassionate tone that is at odds with the events described and in the end I found the whole episode tedious. Mim is admittedly an unreliable narrator but I felt that this wasn’t a stylistic device but simply a failure of characterisation. So many questions are left unexamined. What is the nature of the relationship between Mim and Kyra? How does it survive their separation? It seems unlikely, at the very least, that Mim would suddenly risk everything, even her life, to go on this ill-advised journey to Afghanistan to find someone she hasn’t seen for half her life. And why hasn’t she? I was also dismayed at the portrayal of the Afghan characters. They come across as stereotypes and there was no attempt to depict them as fully rounded characters. Perhaps this merely reflects Mim’s own blinkered view but it makes them merely bit-players in their own story. Overall I found the book rather shallow and unimpressive.
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An exceptional literary novel pressing readers to re-think the narratives (and, thus, values) they hold regarding casual beliefs. Kalotay expertly weaves a story at once intimate and broad.
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I really enjoyed the first part of this book, when Mim was a teenager / young woman in Manhattan.  The second part, many years later in Afghanistan, just didn't feel plausible.  I have no idea whether it would be possible to travel round the country in the way that Mim did, but the author didn't convince me that it would be.

This novel felt like two entirely separate stories, with only tenuous links between them.
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In Blue Hours we meet a group of recent college graduates in 1991 and then again twenty years later.  Kyra, loved and lost by both Mim and Roy after they left school, is missing from her non-profit aid station in Afghanistan and her last known act was to send years of unmailed letters she had written to Mim, mailed to Roy to be delivered to Mim, presumably because she had Roy's address. Roy has the means to hire personnel to find Kyra, but he insists that he and Mim must go and do their best to locate her - they owe it to her to give this their personal attention despite the fact that Mim hasn't heard from Kyra in twenty years - until those letters delivered now.  

Mim's husband Nolan and her teenaged son Sean are self-sufficient enough to muddle through during her absence - they do it when she is on the road with the release of her latest novel - but Nolan, in particular, feels fearful at the very thought of her traveling through what is a major war zone with a man he doesn't know to find a woman she once loved. Those letters, read randomly as Mim finds a slice of free time, brings both Mim and Kyra into sharper focus, and gives their stories added depth.  

This story is action-packed,  the descriptive passages during the trek through Afghanistan take you there, the people they encounter are well fleshed out and the attempts at rescuing Kyra are involved but plausible.  This is a novel I am pleased to recommend to friends and family.   

I received a free electronic copy of this novel from Netgalley, Daphne Kalotay, and Northwestern University Press.  Thank you all for sharing your hard work with me.  I have read this novel of my own volition, and this review reflects my honest opinion of this work.
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Blue Hours displays Daphne Kalotay's astonishing writing talent. From the first sentence ("We were college graduates, blase about it, our diplomas rolled into tubes"), I was fully engaged. The insight, word play and plotting carried me through Part I, The Island, where a fiercely intimate friendship is formed between two young women in Manhattan; and Part II, The Desert, where one of those women goes to the far reaches of Afghanistan when the other is reported missing there.

Reading it was such a lovely experience, but Part III, The World, let me down. It felt rushed and even less personal than the the first 90% of the book -- where I hadn't minded the detachment of Mim, the narrator. After all, she had the textbook childhood for an attachment disorder, and her first close relationship (with Kyra, a dancer) is suddenly terminated.

Until that phone call that lets her know Kyra has disappeared on an aid mission. Mim then puts her life on hold and her marriage in jeopardy to trek to the Afghan-Pakistan border in search of her lost (in many senses) friend.

The beauty of this book is in the deft capture of subtle U.S. class distinctions, of geopolitical realities with absolutely no partisan tropes, and of Kalotay's descriptive power to bring a scene to vivid life. It is worth reading even if one reader wished for something more complete at the finish.

Thanks to NetGalley for an advance readers copy.
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A great and thrilling tale, which leads you through a path of darkness. Excellently crafted, with twists and turns that will keep your turning pages through the night.
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Blue Hours reads well. The characters and settings keep the pace moving along nicely. The NYC scenes bring the early narrative to life while the Afghan section drags on a bit long, maybe, but, the captivation remains and the need to move through the novel keeps the reader "in". The intriguing title unveils its connection and the reader finds the resolution fitting.
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Look out for this nuanced story in July, 2019. From established American author, Daphne Kalotay this is a beautifully-written and thoughtful novel about guilt and self-knowledge set in the USA and in Afghanistan. From small beginnings where recent graduates take on menial jobs and experiment in relationships, the story grows to encompass love, war and bravery, Both moving and (particularly in the latter half) a page turner.
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A fascinating story first set in New York City, moving into Afghanistan, and then to rural upstate New York. The characters have unique personalities, some quarks are humorous, some superficial, some deeper than the ocean. The relationships between the characters really make the book interesting.
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Writing: 4 Plot: 3 Characters: 3

How far would you go for a friend?  Successful author Mim Woodruff faces this question when a call reveals that a humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan has gone missing.  Once an intensely close friend, Mim has not spoken to Kyra in twenty years.

The novel is composed of two major parts:  the first takes place in Manhattan twenty years before the phone call.  Mim and Kyra, fresh out of school, finding their way in the world.  Kyra stylish, pushing away the wealth that is her birthright, and possessed of a deep, almost painful, awareness of the distress around her;  Mim, dreaming of being a writer but instead folding sweaters at Benetton, observing the world around her but always at a remove.  A youthful but intense love affair, a shattering experience, and an almost surgical split lays the foundation for events twenty years later.

Part two follows the journey Mim takes into ever-more remote Afghanistan in the search for the missing Kyra.  Beautiful descriptions of the physical environment and the people.  Well-researched portrayals of the organization of and interplay between the various factions, the military, the aid organizations, and those in remote villages.  Stunning portraits of the individuals involved and those they avoid, warily approach, or engage. 

The story feels real — messy, inescapable, and somewhat hopeless — and yet giving up really can’t be an option.  The tone is emotionally removed, like our central character.  While I found the detail and depth of the story engaging, I did not resonate with the characters at all — in fact I really didn’t like Mim very much.  As an author describing her observations from an objective viewpoint, she works;  As an individual going through deeply personal experiences, not so much. Possibly this says more about me than her!
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Ms Kalotay is a very talented writer. Being a male 2x the age the female protagonist and a plot focused of the friendship of two women, I'm probably not the target audience for this (3.5 Stars) So, I should probably keep my comments brief. and let those who may be a better judge speak. Nonetheless, the characters and scenes and dialog were very well crafted. The pacing was a little uneven, but that's a minor thing. Overall, even though I didn't stay fully engaged throughout, I'd recommend this for those seeking a solid novel. I author has a bright future.

I really appreciate the ARC for review!
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