VANESSA AND HER SISTER by Priya Parmar
Kirkus Star

VANESSA AND HER SISTER

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A devoted, emotionally intense portrait of the Bloomsbury group focuses in particular on sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, whose complicated relationship is tested to the breaking point by their competing affections for two men.

Plunging into her story—the lives, love affairs, intellectual debates, arguments and achievements of an extensive, creative group of English friends—Parmar (Exit the Actress, 2011) allows the background facts about her real-life characters to emerge as needed. The curious, comfortably middle-class ménage of the four orphaned Stephen siblings—Adrian, Thoby, Vanessa and Virginia—living together in a large house in central London in the early 20th century is the foundation of the book. It’s in this house that Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster and many others congregate for bohemian evenings. Bell falls in love with Vanessa; Strachey is a friend of Leonard Woolf, who will eventually return from the Colonies to marry Virginia. Narrated by Vanessa in diary format, punctuated, as if in a scrapbook, by letters, tickets, bills and postcards, this slice of fictional biography spans the years 1905-12, in particular the triangle that forms among Clive, Vanessa and her sister after the birth of the first Bell child. Vanessa, the artist, emerges as “an ocean of majestic calm,” almost infinitely tolerant of her sister, the writer, whose capricious, jealous nature, though tempered by intellectual brilliance and immense charm, tips over at times into madness and suicidal thoughts. This fictional Virginia is far less appealing than her sister, whose nuanced account of her shifting feelings for Clive and eventual love for another invites sympathy. Leonard Woolf’s arrival marks the beginning of the next episode in the group’s extraordinarily intertwined history.

Not exactly uncharted territory, but Parmar enters it with passion and precision, delivering a sensitive, superior soap opera of celebrated lives.

Pub Date: Jan. 13th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-8041-7637-8
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Ballantine
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2014




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