Monday, February 16, 2015

Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar

What if Virginia Woolf’s sister had kept a diary? For fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank comes a spellbinding new story of the inseparable bond between Virginia and her sister, the gifted painter Vanessa Bell, and the real-life betrayal that threatened to destroy their family. Hailed by The New York Times Book Review as “an uncanny success” and based on meticulous research, this stunning novel illuminates a little-known episode in the celebrated sisters’ glittering bohemian youth among the legendary 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 TheTimes. 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. 

Review by Mirella Patzer

The tragic life of English writer, Virginia Woolf, continues to fascinate today. A brilliant talent, Virginia suffered from mental illness (likely bipolar disease) and depression for most of her life. Despite her afflictions, she churned out beautiful literature that is still popular in our modern era. She was a member of the Bloomsbury Group, a group of gifted writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists. 
Author Priya Parmar has written a fascinating accounting of a brief period of Virginia's life through the point of view of her sister in the form of a diary. This epostilatory novel delivers a poignant retelling of one of the most tumultuous periods of Virginia's life, when she was at the height of her troubles. 
At the heart of the story are Virginia and her three siblings, Thoday, Vanessa, and Adrian. The story is full of dramatic encounters, minor scandals, and the social life of the main characters and the ever growing circle of intellectuals that comprised the Bloomsbury Group. Through postcards, letters, and numerous conversations, the story unfolds in a gracious, leisurely manner. 
This is a character driven novel, not a plot driven one. So, if you're looking for a fast paced story, this story might not be for you. Rather, the author took her time to illustrate the Edwardian era, the intricacies and complications of the characters' personalities, and how they interacted with each other. It is a story of how one woman struggled to come to term with her life, her mental illness, her talent, and how it affected those around her. The cast of characters is huge and I struggled to recall them and their roles as I read along. This did take away a little from being able to fully immerse myself in the story as it caused me some frustration. But I persevered by focusing on the 4 main characters and their personal strifes and ignoring all the other characters who didn't offer much to the story. In this way, I was able to finish the novel, and came to enjoy it. 

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