Review: Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel by Priya Parmar

vanessa-and-her-sister“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.” – Publisher Summary

Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel by Priya Parmar is a fictionalized version of the diary of Vanessa Stephen Bell, sister of Virginia Stephen Woolf. While Woolf was known for her writing, Vanessa was known more for being an artist. Both were members of the legendary Bloomsbury Group, which is represented marvelously in the novel. The tale is told via Vanessa’s diary as well as through telegraphed communications, mostly between Lytton Strachey and Leonard Wolf.

Most of us are aware of Virginia Woolf’s struggles with mental illness, and due to this I had expected a somewhat dark and heavy story. Surprisingly, I found that Vanessa, Virginia, and the rest of these Bloomsbury fellows provided much entertainment with their various personalities and quirks. Not to fear, however, there was plenty of focus on Virginia’s mental illness and Vanessa’s struggles in dealing with it. Both of the women’s parents, as well as their beloved elder brother Thoby, had passed and the brunt of the responsibility for the demanding Virginia was Vanessa’s alone.

While I did enjoy the story, particularly the character interaction, I still found the novel to be a bit… dry, I suppose. Certain scenes dragged on impossibly long, and there were far too many characters to keep track of for this aging woman’s mind. Vanessa and Her Sister is an obviously well-researched work that is worth taking the time to read if only for the chance to be a fly on the wall during the infamous salons of the Bloomsbury group. Go and get you some, y’all!

Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel by Priya Parmar: Available at a bookseller near you on December 30, 2014!

3 stars

Source: Ballantine Books {via NetGalley}



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