Thanks to NetGalley and Ballantine Books, I had a chance to read an advance copy of Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar.
In 1905, the Stephens siblings have moved out of their childhood home on the “right” side of town and into the avant-garde neighborhood of Bloomsbury. They shock their more conservative relatives by hosting mixed evenings at home and gathering around them an eccentric circle of artists that includes Lytton Strachey and E. M. Forster. The biggest commonality the group members have is their time at university with Thoby Stephen, but it quickly becomes clear that Vanessa and Virginia are the main attraction: Vanessa, the unflappable hostess and the group’s center of gravity, and Virginia, the mercurial writer whose moods can turn an evening on a dime. Their circle is enjoying being young, thinking big, and pushing boundaries, but a sudden death brings changes they could not have anticipated. Vanessa, the mother hen of the group, finds herself suddenly captivated by the idea of being cared for rather than being the caregiver, and her brother’s friend Clive is determined to marry her. This shifting dynamic sets the already volatile Virginia on a destructive course that will lead to a betrayal Vanessa could never have expected and is not sure she can endure.
The central conflict in the novel is Vanessa’s relationship with Virginia. Vanessa assumes responsibility for Virginia because she is older and because she has a nurturing temperament, but she forgets that she is not Virginia’s mother. I felt like all the characters made excuses for Virginia’s horrible behavior constantly. At one point, Vanessa says that “[b]eautiful Virginia is full of malice, but she is not malicious. It is just how she is built. She is governed by different forces than we… I do not think, in this case, Virginia meant actual harm; she just could not bear to be irrelevant.” Even when she is thinking critically about Virginia, Vanessa is not really seeing her clearly. The Virginia that Parmar shows readers is a monster, completely self-centered and bent on causing as much pain and devastation as she can. Parmar does a great job of making readers feel invested in the conflict – you’re pulling for Vanessa the whole time.
There were a few things about this book I found confusing. First, all the Stephen siblings and their close circle of friends have multiple nicknames for each other. These are used throughout the book with no explanation of who is who – there is only a list of characters (including nicknames) before the first chapter begins. It was nice to have the chart, but it takes you out of the moment when you have to stop reading constantly in the first few chapters to flip back to the chart and figure out who the heck Parmar is talking about.
The second thing I found distracting was the novel’s composition. It’s written as though it is Vanessa’s diary, but there are letters and telegrams scattered throughout as well. I usually like novels that include letters – evidently Parmar’s first book about Nell Gwyn, Exit the Actress, was written in this style too. Some of the letters are written by Virginia or Vanessa, and those were easy enough to understand, but there is lots of correspondence between Lytton and Leonard Woolf. I knew Leonard Woolf eventually married Virginia, but he’s hardly mentioned at all in Vanessa’s diary entries, so these letters just feel random. About halfway through the book, suddenly we start to see letters from someone named Roger Fry to his mother. Who is Roger Fry? He never mentions knowing the Stephens in his letters, he’s never brought up in Vanessa’s journal, so what does he have to do with anything? We discover later, of course, but I thought that was a really weird way to introduce a character.
Despite these issues, I did enjoy the read. Parmar shows on several occasions that she really does have a beautiful way with words. She gives Vanessa some excellent, introspective lines about herself and the people around her. I’ll give you a few examples:
About Virginia: “Writing is Virginia’s engine. She thrums with purpose when she writes. Her scattershot joy and frantic distraction refocus, and she funnels into her purest form. Her centre holds until the piece is over, and she comes apart again.”
About the Bloomsbury group: “For all our confidence, only Morgan has done anything of note in the outside world. The rest of us are still living on the borrowed fuel of potential so far and have not left deep footprints.”
About herself and her painting: “We do not understand the boundaries and dimensions of what we have created until it is consumed by another.”
I’ll be interested to see what Parmar picks as the subject of her next book, and I will be willing to give it a try. If you enjoy books like The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, you’d probably enjoy Vanessa and Her Sister.