When I think of Virginia Woolf, words like heavy, serious, and dense come to mind. I've read and enjoyed To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, but reading those books feels like mental calisthenics for me. I'm (mostly) not ashamed to admit that I can't read at that level every day of the year. I need a little fluff in my life now and then to keep me going. Based on my experience with Woolf's work, I was expecting Parmar's novel about Virginia and her older sister Vanessa to be a bit of an undertaking.
It turns out, though, that Virginia, Vanessa, and the rest of the famous Bloomsbury group were pretty freaky, and their thorny affairs and fierce competition make for delightfully dishy reading. Written primarily in the form of a diary kept by Vanessa, Parmar's language may be eloquent enough for the early 1900s setting, but the action of the plot is much more Real Housewives than Downton Abbey.
We all know Virginia struggled with mental illness because we know how her life ended. But what I hadn't thought about when reading her novels was how difficult she probably was to live with. Parmar expresses well the conflicting feelings that arise from being related to someone so volatile. Vanessa loves her sister but at the same time is exhausted by her. Virginia is extremely possessive, prone to jealousy and violent fits of rage. After the deaths of their parents and their beloved brother Thoby, the responsibility for Virginia falls squarely to Vanessa, who is just trying to live her own quiet life and avoid stealing too much of her sister's spotlight.
Though at times the scenes stretched on a bit long and the cataloging of people coming and going from the house grew tiresome, I enjoyed the descriptions of late-night conversations about art and literature and philosophy. The substance of these informal salons was less interesting to me than the complex social interplay between the characters, especially the sullen way Virginia reacts to other writers' success and the doubt Vanessa feels about her own intelligence and artistic ability. It humorously brought to mind the posturing I've often witnessed (and occasionally been guilty of) in college English courses.
Vanessa and Her Sister is a well-researched and surprisingly fun glimpse into the life of a talented but difficult woman.
With regards to Random House, Ballantine, and NetGalley for the advance copy. On sale December 30.