Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Book Review:

A story that tells a tale of the Bloomsbury Group using a journal-style approach from Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf.  From the start, the construct was a bit of a sticking point for me: the story if not purported to be a journal would have felt much more ‘present’ but the dialogue and other insets to specifically present Vanessa’s story as a journal just kept me slightly removed from the story early on.  I will say that the clever descriptions, details and little bits of information dropping throughout each moment soon did take over my hesitancy, and I dove into the story not putting it down until completed.

As a fiction, this is a wonderful account of a sister’s relationship: the petty (or not so) jealousies, the conflicts, competition for attention and acceptance and tiny grievances that are always apparent in every sibling relationship surface and play a part in tone and a reader’s ability to believe in every minute detail.  I rather loved the ‘salon’ feel to the evenings and gatherings detailed, and it was easy to involve and engage myself in the discussions.  What was most interesting to me was the portrayal of Virginia Woolf, and her difficulties with mental illness. Vanessa details an almost classic narcissistic personality: self-involved and concerned, with little thought to others except in the fulfillment of her own needs. The real intrigue here was not in the difficulty in dealing with Woolf, but in the seeming reliance on Vanessa to make things “right” and rein in Virginia’s often demanding and difficult behavior.

The inclusion of multiple pieces of correspondence, detailing conversations and connections and the insets of the known with the unknown and extrapolated grounded this fiction piece: yes place and time and some events that are known to have occurred are detailed, but the true joys in this story are in the characters, the building and development, their interactions and the overall feeling of an entrée into a world gone by.

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Title: Vanessa and Her Sister
Published on: 30 December, 2014
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Pages: 368
Audio Length: 10 Hours: 52 minutes
Rated: four-stars
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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.

A copy of this title was provided via Publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.

About Priya Parmar

A former dramaturg and freelance editor, Priya Parmar was educated at Mount Holyoke College, The University of Oxford and The University of Edinburgh. She is the author of one previous novel, Exit the Actress. Priya and her husband and their French bulldog Herbert divide their time between Hawaii and London.


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