I love historical novels that center around writers. The writer needn’t be the protagonist: The Paris Wife, The Secret Confessions of Anne Shakespeare. . . I think I’ve reviewed too many to list. Or books about literary intellectual "sets" like Passion by Jude Morgan–these books really draw me in. So when I saw that Vanessa and her Sister. A Novel by Priya Parmar was offered on Netgalley, I quickly requested it and was thrilled to be approved.
(Disclaimer: I received this book for free through Netgalley. This did not influence my review.)
Problems arise. First, Virginia Stephen is (or will one day be) Virginia Woolf. Brilliant, witty, beautiful, she is also mentally ill and prone to breakdowns. The family life revolves around her. Thoby, to some extent, is able to help her stay on an even keel, but a good deal of the management of Ginia (and a good deal of the management of the household in general) falls to Vanessa.
The other problem is that Vanessa and Virginia are both unmarried women in their twenties of good social standing. So, it stands to reason that they need to marry. And the men of their acquaintance are these intellectuals of their brother’s circle. There are men willing to step up to the plate and propose. But how will that work out as it alters the group dynamic?
I loved this book. It is written primarily in a journal entry style–Vanessa’s journal. Although she starts off with the disclaimer that words are Virginia’s domain and that she is given painting and told to steer away from words, her journal shows that she is no slacker when it comes to gorgeous writing. She is open and honest, allowing her irritation with her sister to come through as well as her love. She demonstrates her insecurities, but when she is proud of herself, that is also recorded. It is very heartfelt.
The journal is interspersed with "documents." Letters, postcards, train tickets–sent from various members of the set to others and from or to Vanessa. It is fascinating to see Vanessa through the eyes of her friends, or to see the same event retold from a different perspective. Vanessa has more support than she realizes–and it is wonderfully bolstering.
If I have a complaint, it is only that I read this on my ipad kindle app. There are a lot of characters introduced at once and they all have names and nicknames that are different from their "famous" names. So at the beginning of the book, it took awhile for me to settle in to who was being talked about. There is a cast of characters at the beginning of the book to help sort this out, but I find it difficult to navigate back and forth with an ebook. But that’s a device issue. It has nothing to do with the story.
This book is superb. I had trouble putting it down and would happily have spent more time following this cast of characters as they moved through their poignant, fascinating world.