Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel - Priya Parmar

I chose this book because it was recommended for fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, two books I really enjoyed as much for their writing as for the historical nature of their themes. By the time this made it to the top of my to-read pile, I had forgotten what it was about. When I finally started, I realized this was one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” novels. The story revolves around the group of luminaries later known as the Bloomsbury group, and, at its center, Vanessa Bell and her sister, Virginia Stephen (later, Woolf).

 

Vanessa is a talented painter who also cultivates talent in others. With her brothers and sister, she opens their home to a group of artists who will later achieve great fame and fortune: E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, and Lytton Strachey, among others. As I read, I bookmarked a few things I found amazing – for example, at one time Picasso burned his own drawings because he could not afford coal. This novel was a terrific prequel to many stories we know that begin only with success.

 

I have read several of Virginia Woolf’s novels, and now I want to re-read them with this new knowledge I have of her. I don’t know why, but before reading this I was under the impression that she had been a successful writer who had a nervous breakdown, but that was obviously not the case. Virginia was the damaged, sheltered baby in her family, and, when her parents died, she really ruled the roost. Her whims determined how everyone else lived, and she developed obsessive attachments to friends and family alike. It was scary reading parts of this book, especially the lengths she would go to get what she wanted. I understood why Vanessa was named in the title — for me she was the far more interesting character. She was forced to compromise in so many ways throughout her life in an attempt to manage Virginia’s illness; it was amazing to me that she was ever able to develop a career of her own. I loved this book for the lesser-known parts of the story it presented, and for the deft way the author wove the facts into her narrative. There is a real sense of place here, and for me, it captured an amazing time – the moment just before all of these people came into their own, when, as a group, they encouraged and shared and became something even greater.