Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Review: "Vanessa and Her Sister" by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and Her Sister Priya Parmar
Published: December 30, 2014
ISBN: 9780804176378
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Netgalley
Highly Recommended 

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.

My Thoughts:
I feel I should start this review with a tip.  If you are like me and know little about the Bloomsbury Group, I would recommend reading this book in hardcover rather than on an e-reader or listening to an audiobook.  Parmar includes a list of the major characters at the beginning of the book, which is quite useful as that she doesn't provide detailed explanations of the characters as they enter the narrative. However, if you are reading this on an e-reader or listening to an audiobook, it is difficult to flip back and refer to this list.  I say this not as a criticism as a book, but as a heads up for a prospective reader.

Now, with that out of the way, onto the book.  As you can probably tell from my first paragraph, I was not overly familiar with the Bloomsbury Groop.  I knew who Virginia Woolf was, of course, and I had read most of E.M. Forster's books. I had a recollection of the names of many of the other characters, but that was about it.  I didn't even knew that Virginia Woolf had a notable sister.  The character list at the beginning of the book is very useful as there are so many characters showing up here, and to compound things, many go by nicknames.

So, that was my starting point with this book.  It is told mostly through Vanessa's (fictional) diary entries, with correspondence between several characters included.  I will say that diary-centered novels are a bit problematic for me--I frequently finding myself questioning such detailed entries (does anyone have that kind of memory and ability to write so much without developing a debilitating cramp?).  While these thoughts did pop into my head a couple of times while reading this book, on the whole the diary format irritated me far less in this book than it did in others.  I will say that there were a series of letter from Roger Fry to others, such as his mother, peppered through the book, which I found a little disconcerting because Roger doesn't really come on the scene as a character until much later in the book.

The center of this book is the relationship between Vanessa and Virginia.  Vanessa does have a bit of a complex--her family has let her know that her artistic pursuits are less impressive than her sisters literary pursuits.  It is also mentioned that her parents had told her that Virginia was "remarkable" and that Vanessa must take care of her.

The truth is that Virginia is mentally ill.  And she is manipulative.  Parmar is skilled in showing that these two things--her mental illness and her manipulativeness--are two separate things and one is not a byproduct of the other, which is something I appreciate.  While Virginia is not a likable character, it is easy to see how the other characters of the book are charmed by her.  All this shows what a difficult position Vanessa finds herself trapped in.

Vanessa is, not surprisingly, far more likable.  For one thing, she is sane.  For another, she sees Virginia for what she is.  Vanessa is also not a shrinking violet--she is not a character who is willing to just accept her lot and deal with it, even though she does make an attempt to do so.  It is when she realizes that she, alone, is in charge of her life that she truly blossoms.

At the core, this book is about a woman coming into her own and learning to live her life on her terms, despite the expectations of family and friends.  On that count, Parmar succeeds and brings to the forefront a remarkable woman.

I received an electronic copy of this book in return for an honest review.  I received no other compensation for this post.

Vanessa and Her Sister
by Priya Parmar

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