REVIEW: Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar
Published December 30th, 2014 by Ballantine Books
Hardcover; 368 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Avg. Goodreads Rating: 3.75
My Rating★★★

London, 1905: The city is alight with change, and the Stephen siblings are at the forefront. Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby, and Adrian are leaving behind their childhood home and taking a house in the leafy heart of avant-garde Bloomsbury. There they bring together a glittering circle of bright, outrageous artistic friends who will grow into legend and come to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. And at the center of this charmed circle are the devoted, gifted sisters: Vanessa, the painter, and Virginia, the writer.
Each member of the group will go on to earn fame and success, but so far Vanessa Bell has never sold a painting. Virginia Woolf’s book review has just been turned down by The Times. Lytton Strachey has not published anything. E. M. Forster has finished his first novel but does not like the title. Leonard Woolf is still a civil servant in Ceylon, and John Maynard Keynes is looking for a job. Together, this sparkling coterie of artists and intellectuals throw away convention and embrace the wild freedom of being young, single bohemians in London.

But the landscape shifts when Vanessa unexpectedly falls in love and her sister feels dangerously abandoned. Eerily possessive, charismatic, manipulative, and brilliant, Virginia has always lived in the shelter of Vanessa’s constant attention and encouragement. Without it, she careens toward self-destruction and madness. As tragedy and betrayal threaten to destroy the family, Vanessa must decide if it is finally time to protect her own happiness above all else. [Via Goodreads]

In Vanessa and Her Sister, Priya Parmar leads us through the life of Vanessa Bell (née Stephens) via epistolary format interspersed with correspondence. Throughout this novel, we meet the iconic Virginia Stephens (who later became Virginia Wolfe if you are completely under a rock) as well as other influential and revolutionary members of the Bloomsbury Group. This is a historical fiction novel based somewhat on the real lives of the above mentioned. Some events really did happen while Parmar took substantial liberties with others.

I wanted to love this book. I expected to like this book but… I was only mildly interested in it at best. It took me two tries to finish. I had set it down months ago before resuming it at Christmas for lack of anything else interesting on my Kindle. I managed to get through it at a much faster pace than initially but it became a trudge. I didn’t force myself to finish it–I was genuinely curious about what would happen next but I just wasn’t all that excited about it. The characters felt a bit dull and flat to me and if the Bloomsbury Group can feel flat, well, I don’t know…

Honestly, I was confused by this novel to begin with. Perhaps it’s because I had a digital review copy and the formatting wasn’t entirely set in stone yet. But, the diary format began in such a way that, at first, I wasn’t sure whose voice it was, if they were writing to someone else or if it’s just strange narration. I say this because the journal entries actually contain dialogue as if the author (Vanessa) were narrating her own life day by day. That just felt very weird and it didn’t jive with me.  In addition to this confusion came the written documents–letters, telegrams, programs, and other documents. This confused me even more because I wasn’t sure if these were entirely fictional documents or if these were legitimate copies. (Which brings me to this: if they are legitimate copies then, in my humble opinion, they don’t belong in a work of fiction. Save that for your non-fiction biography or something.) It confused me even more when it was found to contain copies of correspondence between characters besides the diary author (Vanessa) and someone else. (For example, it was not just letters to or from Vanessa. It also contained letters from Lytton to Leonard or Roger to his mother.) That felt completely bizarre given that everything else was in Vanessa’s point of view but here were these letters from other people sporadically placed between diary entries.

The writing is definitely lovely. Parmar has a way with words but even her words couldn’t entice this story line to being anything but dull. I guess, perhaps, I expected more but it just felt very okay and not astounding like I thought it might be. I think I would have enjoyed it more had Parmar taken a different route and written the biography of the sisters instead.

Other works by Priya Parmar:



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