Sunday, July 26, 2015

Staff Review: Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

First, a pop-quiz question: Who or what was the Bloomsbury Group?

Answer: The Bloomsbury Group was a collection of early twentieth-century artists, writers, and other intellectuals who lived crazy, artsy, unconventional lives in the then-unfashionable (and shockingly bohemian!) London neighborhood of Bloomsbury. The most famous Bloomsbury members were the writers Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster, along with the influential economist John Maynard Keynes, but the group’s core included seven others.

Priya Parmar’s novel Vanessa and Her Sister recreates the Bloomsbury Group’s world and, wow, does she do a bang-up job of it. The New York Times Book Review called her novel "an uncanny achievement" and it is. Presented entirely in fictionalized letters, telegrams, and journal entries composed by multiple characters, Vanessa and Her Sister doesn’t hit a false note. It’s truly a remarkable accomplishment.

The compelling focus of the story, which takes place between 1905 and 1912, is Virginia Woolf’s relationship with her sister Vanessa, a talented painter. Both women are in their twenties as the novel opens and living with their bright Cambridge-educated brothers in a free-form household that attracts the best and brightest to its co-ed “at-homes”: literary salons, art evenings, and dinner parties, where drinks flow, conversations shock, and no one staggers home before daylight.

Vanessa is the family’s rudder and she is forced to navigate turbulent waters, for Virginia -- beautiful, brilliant, mesmerizing Virginia, who strikes me as something of a spoiled brat -- is apt to go raving mad at any moment and has already spent time in an asylum. (Famously, 35 years later, the oft-published and successful Virginia Woolf will load her pockets with rocks and walk into the River Ouse for good.) Trying to maintain Virginia’s equilibrium takes up a good portion of Vanessa’s days.

Household waters grow more turbulent still when Clive Bell, an art critic and Bloomsbury Group member, sets his sights on Vanessa and resolves to make her his wife (in an open-marriage, of course). Virginia cannot handle it – she cannot abide anyone appropriating the attention of Vanessa, her lifeline (and, some might say, enabler). In an unhinged reaction to her own rabid jealousy, Virginia promptly attempts to win Clive for herself.

The plot is definitely something of a potboiler, but it’s based on fact and it plays out in a fairly civilized way. The Bloomsbury Group did live at a perpetual simmer and conducted themselves in the most unorthodox and incestuous ways: affairs and adulteries abounded, partners were swapped, sexual preference was rarely static, jealousies and intrigues were the order of the day, yet through the years the group remained largely intact. They were a brilliant, lively, and dynamic bunch, though a tad too gossipy, as Parmar illustrates, for my tastes.

They also traveled a lot (money doesn’t seem to be a big consideration for many of them) and the novel follows its characters all over Europe and farther afield. It’s a delight to read and even better to listen to, for the audiobook is narrated by a cast of great British actors whose faces you’d recognize right away from PBS’s Masterpiece Theater and Mystery. With their fine acting talent and oh-so-elegant accents, they do a superb job of bringing the Bloomsbury Group and this fine novel to life.

~Ann, Adult Services

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