Wednesday, June 17, 2015


At first I was put off by the fact that this book consists entirely of fictional letters and diary entries, but the story was so engaging that I began to look forward to each successive narrator’s perspective, and there were too many narrators to mention.  The primary one is Vanessa Stephen, sister of Virginia Woolf, who is the unmarried Virginia Stephen throughout this novel.  Vanessa and Virginia are very close, especially after both parents die, and they take up residence with their two brothers in the Bloomsbury district of London.  Their home becomes a frequent meeting place for artists, writers, and thinkers, including novelist E.M. Forster and economist Maynard Keynes.  Romantic liaisons develop among these intellectuals, resulting in jealousy, heartbreak, and rifts, the most prominent of which is between the two sisters.  Virginia, the writer, looks down on visual artists, including Vanessa, while at the same time behaving extremely possessively toward her.  Virginia is also prone to mental breakdowns, and Vanessa has her hands full as the head of the household, until she finally deigns to marry Clive Bell, an art critic who adores her.  After their first child is born, however, Clive starts to feel neglected and seeks solace elsewhere.  Virginia, bent on driving a stake through the heart of the marriage so that she can reclaim Vanessa as her own, begins a flirtation with Clive that Vanessa eventually has to come to terms with.  In some ways this book is about sibling rivalry, but in trying to sabotage Vanessa’s marriage, Virginia proves herself to be a selfish, manipulative woman and basically the villain of this novel and the foil to Vanessa’s heroine.  The most engrossing ongoing correspondence in the book is between writer Lytton Strachey and foreign diplomat Leonard Woolf.  Strachey sings Virginia’s praises to Woolf and encourages him to marry her, if for no other reason than to get her out of Vanessa’s hair.  Almost as fascinating as the novel itself is the epilogue that the author provides to fill us in on what happened afterward.  There’s definitely enough material for another compelling novel, even if we know the outcome.

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