A New York Times Notable Book • An Entertainment Weekly “Must List” Pick • “Prepare to be dazzled.”—Paula McLain • “Quite simply astonishing.”—Sarah Blake
What if Virginia Woolf’s sister had kept a diary? For fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank comes a spellbinding new story of the inseparable bond between Virginia and her sister, the gifted painter Vanessa Bell, and the real-life betrayal that threatened to destroy their family. Hailed by The New York Times Book Review as “an uncanny success” and based on meticulous research, this stunning novel illuminates a little-known episode in the celebrated sisters’ glittering bohemian youth among the legendary Bloomsbury Group.
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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.
The work of exciting young newcomer Priya Parmar, Vanessa and Her Sister exquisitely captures the champagne-heady days of prewar London and the extraordinary lives of sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.
Praise for Vanessa and Her Sister
“Fiction and history merge seamlessly in this dazzling novel.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Being related to Virginia Woolf can’t have been easy. In this delightful novel, Parmar re-imagines the brilliant, fragile writer and her turn-of-the-century bohemian friends. . . . You’ll be spellbound.”—People
“Rarely do you encounter a woman who commands as much admiration as does the painter Vanessa Bell in Priya Parmar’s multilayered, subtly shaded novel.”—The New York Times Book Review
“[A] gossipy, entertaining historical novel . . . Parmar conjures a devastating fictional portrait.”—USA Today
“Captivating . . . echoes of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility emerge in Parmar’s portrayal.”—Newsday
“An elegant, entertaining novel that brings new life to the Bloomsbury Group’s intrigues.”—The Dallas Morning News
Parmar's excellent sophomore effort (after Exit the Actress) contends mostly with the complicated relationship between the four Stephen siblings (including Vanessa, later known as Vanessa Bell, the painter, and Virginia, later known as Virginia Woolf). After a happy upbringing, the sisters are separated in their 20s by the death of their brother, Thoby, and Vanessa's marriage to Clive Bell, Thoby's college pal. Parmar does a stellar job conveying Virginia's complicated, almost incestuous feelings for Vanessa, which are exacerbated by Virginia's manic depression and need to be the center of attention. Distracted by the birth of her first child, Vanessa all but ignores Clive, who falls prey to Virginia's efforts to insinuate herself into the marriage. Vanessa is torn by her love for her sister and an understanding of how her illness colors everything, as well as her own desire to have a life of her own. The author also deftly brings to life the various artists and writers who formed the nascent Bloomsbury group, heralding the arrival of Leonard Woolf who eventually comes home to England and saves Virginia from spinsterhood. Structured primarily as Vanessa's diary, with fictional letters from characters like Woolf and the journalist Lytton Strachey included, Parmar's narrative is riveting and successfully takes on the task of turning larger-than-life figures into real people. Readers who aren't familiar with the Bloomsbury group might be overwhelmed at first by the sheer number of characters in the book, but Parmar weaves their stories together so effortlessly that nothing seems out of place.
Customer ReviewsSee All
the true joys in this story are in the characters, the building and development, their interactions
A story that tells a tale of the Bloomsbury Group using a journal-style approach from Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf. From the start, the construct was a bit of a sticking point for me: the story if not purported to be a journal would have felt much more ‘present’ but the dialogue and other insets to specifically present Vanessa’s story as a journal just kept me slightly removed from the story early on. I will say that the clever descriptions, details and little bits of information dropping throughout each moment soon did take over my hesitancy, and I dove into the story not putting it down until completed.
As a fiction, this is a wonderful account of a sister’s relationship: the petty (or not so) jealousies, the conflicts, competition for attention and acceptance and tiny grievances that are always apparent in every sibling relationship surface and play a part in tone and a reader’s ability to believe in every minute detail. I rather loved the ‘salon’ feel to the evenings and gatherings detailed, and it was easy to involve and engage myself in the discussions. What was most interesting to me was the portrayal of Virginia Woolf, and her difficulties with mental illness. Vanessa details an almost classic narcissistic personality: self-involved and concerned, with little thought to others except in the fulfillment of her own needs. The real intrigue here was not in the difficulty in dealing with Woolf, but in the seeming reliance on Vanessa to make things “right” and rein in Virginia’s often demanding and difficult behavior.
The inclusion of multiple pieces of correspondence, detailing conversations and connections and the insets of the known with the unknown and extrapolated grounded this fiction piece: yes place and time and some events that are known to have occurred are detailed, but the true joys in this story are in the characters, the building and development, their interactions and the overall feeling of an entrée into a world gone by.
I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.