Wednesday, December 3, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar

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.)

Vanessa Stephen is one of four siblings. The others are Thoby, Virginia, and Adrian. On the death of their parents, they take up residence in a house in the Bloomsbury area of London and start holding court. Thoby is a much respected and beloved figure, not only among his siblings but among an intellectual and artistic young set of the day: writers, painters, and critics. This crew will eventually become known as the Bloomsbury Group (or Set). Thoby invites his friends to come around on Thursday evenings to discuss literature and philosophy. Vanessa extends this to Friday evenings to discuss painting. Despite the fact that Vanessa and Virginia are single women and this sort of thing isn’t supposed to be done, the mixed company evenings become more and more frequent and more and more informal as the men start dropping in and hanging out without invitation. The members start addressing each other by first names and nicknames. Everything is very cozy and smart.

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.


  1. I really enjoyed Priya Parmar's first novel, and have been eagerly awaiting a follow-up. While the subject of this one doesn't really appeal to me -- I tend not to be interested in novels that feature writers, artists, etc., as principal characters -- your review has me thinking I should probably try this one.

  2. I've got a galley of this book, just waiting for me to pick it up. It sounds good, and like you, I enjoy stories of writers' lives. Thanks for the review -- you have me looking forward to this one!