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VANESSA & VIRGINIA by Susan Sellers


by Susan Sellers

Pub Date: May 14th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-15-101474-3
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Despite the title, this first novel by Virginia Woolf scholar Sellers is much more focused on Virginia’s sister Vanessa.

Vanessa, who narrates the story, is obsessed with her sister from earliest childhood. As a small child, painfully aware that Virginia is favored for her intellect by both their neglectful, beautiful mother and their demanding father, Vanessa finds solace in her capacity for sensory delight and her gifts as a visual artist. When their parents and their beloved brother Thoby die, Vanessa must take care of the nitty-gritty responsibilities while the emotionally delicate Virginia breaks down. After Thoby’s death Vanessa agrees to marry Clive Bell. The newlyweds defy convention, openly embracing their carnal attraction. After their first child’s birth, Clive’s interest wanes and he flirts with Virginia. Eventually both Clive and Vanessa take lovers. Vanessa is adored by Roger Fry and adores Duncan Grant, who is gay although he fathers her third child. Meanwhile, Virginia marries Leonard Woolf. Despite warning Leonard not to pressure Virginia about sex, Vanessa senses an intimacy in the Woolf marriage that has eluded her, except perhaps with Virginia. All the Bloomsbury regulars show up. Vanessa frequently describes her paintings, though more through the eye of a critic than an artist, and Sellers cannot resist throwing in an occasional scholarly quote that would more logically appear in a straightforward biography. Premonitions of Virginia’s suicide abound as Vanessa considers the possibility for herself. Vanessa comes across as a whiny victim to Virginia’s self-centered prig.

A self-consciously precious sort-of-fiction that follows the facts and offers nothing new for Bloomsbury cultists while flattening much of the drama into navel-gazing.