Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar
Ballentine Books, 2014. Hardcover, 368 pages.
Released during the last week of 2014, Vanessa and Her Sister was picked as one of the ten Library Reads for January. This novel follows an interesting format; the majority was written as Vanessa Bell’s fictional diary. The rest was epistolary featuring a combination of letters, postcards, and telegrams. I enjoyed this format!
The novel opens to Vanessa, Thoby, Virgina, and Adrian Stephens moving to a new house in the Bloomsbury district of London following their father’s recent death. Their home becomes the centerpiece for Thoby’s Cambridge classmates to discuss art, literature, and other topics of interest. Without this group of men, known as the Bloomsbury Group, the book would have lacked a driving force as they added humor and treated Vanessa and Virginia as a not only members of their club, but the heart of it. Hardly was there a scene not involving multiple members of the group, much of which focused on their lively discussions. These were quite radical ideas for the turn of the twentieth century.
As the eldest of the Stephens clan, Vanessa is the matriarch. She oversees the household, cares for brothers, and is the stabilizing force in her sister’s life. Vanessa also loves to paint. After another event devastated their family, she marries her brother’s friend Clive Bell, an art critic. While their marriage was initially happy, after their first child’s birth, it falters. This and its ramifications provide one of the key storylines in the latter half of the novel. The other key plot involved Vanessa and Virgina’s relationship. We see how Virgina loves to write; strives for attention, especially Vanessa’s; and how her thought processes are off kilter. In fact, Virginia has always bordered the cusp of sanity and wanted to live Vanessa’s life with her, in all aspects. After all, this is the future Virgina Woolf who would later commit suicide; evidence to this eventuality is seen early in the novel.
Other stories that begin as seemingly sidelines in the letters and postcards hit full force at the novel’s end. These involved letters from the art curator and critic Roger Fry to his mother and from the Bloomsbury Group’s Lytton Strachey to his friend Leonard Woolf, then serving an administrative role in colonial India. Saying any more about these will give away the plot.
The writing in this novel was delightful! The prose was quintessential British with very vivid, flowing descriptions. As mentioned above, the format was unique. I enjoyed the how the use of the first person placed the reader in Vanessa’s shoes and one felt her happiness, anguish, and every emotion in between. Readers also gain a better insight to her decisions, whether about those she loved or her artwork. It made reading the work much more personal. When it comes to the correspondence, readers gain the same insight to those who wrote the letter, especially with Lytton (his letters are very revealing and he holds nothing back, including his emotions). Additionally, there were equal parts of tense situations as there were lighthearted; on the latter, many gave cause to laugh.
Since Vanessa and many of her cohorts were artists or writers, one gains an understanding of post-modern art and the books the members wrote during the novel’s eight year span. Also, since they loved to travel, including to several exotic places in Europe, and had servants, the novel allows readers to understand how the British upper classes operated. This aspect of the novel reminded me of Downton Abbey from the upper class perspective.
At the end of the novel, a historical note ties up all the character’s lives post-1912. It also explains that the real Vanessa Bell did not keep a diary, unlike many of her friends. This seems to be why she was the narrator for most of the book. After all, hers was the least documented life and offered the most creative freedoms. Extensive diaries and correspondence exists for her siblings and friends, providing key clues and insights to help Parmar write this novel as realistically as possible.
To note, I also loved the simple elegance of the cover and its striking use contrasting teal to the otherwise antiquated look.
I picked up the ARC copy of this novel back at the conference I attended in October. Thanks to the friendly face at the Penguin Random House booth!
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