Monday, December 22, 2014

Vanessa and Her Sister

Title:  Vanessa and Her Sister
Author:  Priya Parmar
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2014. 368 pages.
ISBN:  080417637X / 978-0804176378

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "There can be no beginning again. Love and forgiveness are not the same thing."

Several books I have read over the past couple of years present a fictionalized account of an actual relationship:
  • Madame Picasso is the story of Eva Gouel and Pablo Picasso.
  • Mrs. Hemingway is the story of the four wives of Ernest Hemingway.
  • Under the Wide and Starry Sky is the story of Fanny Osbourne and Robert Loius Stevenson.
  • I Always Loved You is about the relationship between Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt.
  • Mrs. Poe tells the story of Edgar Allen Poe, his wife Virginia, and Frances "Fanny" Osgood.
  • The Paris Wife is another story about Ernest Hemingway and his marriage to Elizabeth Hadley Richardson.
Each book shares the idea of depicting both a relationship and a time in history. They all do so with a varying degree of success and a shifting balance between the history and the individual story.

Vanessa and her Sister is different from the other in that it is not the story of a romantic relationship. It is the story of two sisters - Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell. The two were sisters, friends, and rivals. They were also central members of the Bloomsbury Group in early twentieth century London. Virginia, the author in the family, suffered from mental illness, now suspected to be bipolar disorder, and eventually committed suicide in 1941 at the age of only 59. Vanessa, the artist of the family, was perhaps always in the shadow of her sister and perhaps always in the role of her sister's caretaker. Even today, most biographical listings or Vanessa Bell include in the opening sentences the fact that she is Virginia Woolf's sister.

The Bloomsbury Group was not a formal group but rather a name given after the fact to a set of individuals who met regularly in the early 1900s. Its significance lies in the people involved, which included Virginia, Vanessa, their brothers Thoby and Adrian, economist John Maynard Keynes, art critic Clive Bell, writer Leonard Woolf, writer and critic Giles Lytton Strachey, writer EM Forester, and artist Duncan Grant. Interestingly, at the time, none in the group had reached the fame they would later find. Relationships flourished within the group, including friendships, marriages, and affairs.

This story begins in 1905, towards the beginning of the time this group started to meet. It continues to about 1912. The story centers on Vanessa and Virginia, but really encompasses the entire Bloomsbury Group. The book, in fact, begins with a character list several pages long.

Unfortunately, even by the end, the characters remain somewhat just a list. The story is told primarily through Vanessa's point of view. It is an epistolary tale, told through Vanessa's journal entries interspersed with letters, facsimiles of tickets, postcards, and other such things. This format leads to this sense of viewing snapshots in quick succession without a sense of continuity or flow.

This combined with an extensive cast of characters makes the story difficult to follow and the characters - even the narrator Vanessa - difficult to know or develop an empathy for. The interest in learning more about the members of the group is there, but the book does not get beyond the surface of this fascinating list of characters. At the end, I am left with neither a sense of the time and history nor an in depth look at the relationship between Vanessa and Virginia.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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