Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar ~ 368 pages ~ published 12/30/14 by Ballantine Books
For fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank comes a captivating novel that offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of Vanessa Bell, her sister Virginia Woolf, and the controversial and popular circle of intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group.
London, 1905: The city is alight with change, and the Stephen siblings are at the forefront. Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby, and Adrian are leaving behind their childhood home and taking a house in the leafy heart of avant-garde Bloomsbury. There they bring together a glittering circle of bright, outrageous artistic friends who will grow into legend and come to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. And at the center of this charmed circle are the devoted, gifted sisters: Vanessa, the painter, and Virginia, the writer.
Each member of the group will go on to earn fame and success, but so far Vanessa Bell has never sold a painting. Virginia Woolf’s book review has just been turned down by The Times. Lytton Strachey has not published anything. E. M. Forster has finished his first novel but does not like the title. Leonard Woolf is still a civil servant in Ceylon, and John Maynard Keynes is looking for a job. Together, this sparkling coterie of artists and intellectuals throw away convention and embrace the wild freedom of being young, single bohemians in London.
But the landscape shifts when Vanessa unexpectedly falls in love and her sister feels dangerously abandoned. Eerily possessive, charismatic, manipulative, and brilliant, Virginia has always lived in the shelter of Vanessa’s constant attention and encouragement. Without it, she careens toward self-destruction and madness. As tragedy and betrayal threaten to destroy the family, Vanessa must decide if it is finally time to protect her own happiness above all else.
The work of exciting young newcomer Priya Parmar, Vanessa and Her Sister exquisitely captures the champagne-heady days of prewar London and the extraordinary lives of sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.
What I Thought:
Going into this book, I really knew nothing about Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, or anyone else in the Bloomsbury Group. This was the March pick for the book club at our bookstore, and seeing as I love historical fiction, I figured I would like it fairly well. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it!
I learned so much from this novel! I had no idea that there were so many famous authors, artists, politicians, journalists, and critics that were so close to one another! I also didn’t know that they met weekly at the Stephen’s home – the home of siblings Vanessa, Virginia, Julian (Thoby), and Adrian. They lived a thoroughly bohemian lifestyle, casting off the stuffy rules of Victorian society and embracing the turn of the century with arms outstretched. I got a very Gatsby vibe from it all…and it actually happened!
There were a few things that I liked. I really enjoyed the format of the novel. It was written almost entirely in the form of a diary that Vanessa kept, chronicling all of the goings on of the Bloomsbury Group and her dealings with Virginia. The rest of the novel was done through correspondence – letters, telegrams, postcards. These were generally from the perspectives of the other characters, which I felt generally rounded out the story nicely. It was fun to see how the other people in this prestigious group saw one another.
Another thing I enjoyed was getting an inside view into what it would have been like to grow up with Virginia Woolf. I knew going into the novel that she committed suicide. Now, it did not go into this during this story, but it did go into her mental illness. At the time, they did not really know what was wrong with Virginia, but they called it madness. I looked it up, and apparently Virginia Woolf had bipolar disorder. All of the passages in the novel where Vanessa describes Virginia’s “spells” were very interesting, and well done.
One thing that created some conflicting emotions in me was Vanessa’s relationship with Virginia. Virginia was apparently obsessed with her sister, and basically wanted Vanessa to spend her entire life with her, rather than find a husband and move out. Virginia’s ways of attempting to secure Vanessa’s love and devotion were extremely frustrating. I believe this was the intent (and as it was based on a real person, I’m assuming fairly accurate). Vanessa continuously makes excuses for her sister because of her condition…and I just wanted to throttle her!! I know I was supposed to feel some sympathy for Virginia, but I really had a hard time doing so.
I will also say that I sometimes felt that the novel lost a bit of focus when it bounced around between the characters a lot. I know it was a bit unavoidable, seeing as there were so many people in their close circle, but I felt the pace lagged a bit when Parmar was trying to cover what was going on with everyone in the group, instead of focusing on the main players.
Overall, I enjoyed the novel. I gave it 3.5 STARS. I learned a lot about the Bloomsbury Group (before which I knew absolutely nothing!). I learned a lot about Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. It was a good, solid historical fiction novel.
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