Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar (Ballantine Books, January 2015)
This novel, depicting the lives of the four young adult Stephen siblings, Adrian, Thoby, Vanessa (later Bell) and Virginia (later Woolf) living parentless in London at the turn of the 20th century, in sympathy with each other, creating a salon-like world, drawing in artists, writers and keen observers of society and culture. Beginning with a letter from Virginia to Vanessa, written in 1912 and asking forgiveness for an unknown offense, the narrative then shifts seven years earlier where, much like Woolf’s fabled Mrs. Dalloway, the story begins with Vanessa making a list for an evening the siblings are hosting. Told with diary-like entries, telegrams and notes between other players (notably Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell and Leonard Woolf), readers are given a glimpse into the everyday lives of the men and women who made up the Bloomsbury Group. In her second novel, Parmar focuses mainly on the relationship between Vanessa and Virginia, though told from Vanessa’s point of view she is the more completely drawn character. Virginia’s mental illness is addressed as are her, and those of her brothers’, odd proclivities that have fascinated readers and scholars for decades. As Vanessa tries to take care of her sister, she learns she must look out for herself as well, finally succumbing to Clive Bell’s proposals of marriage the third time, only learning too late how deep Virginia’s jealousies of her lie and how naively she has been looking at her life. This is an enchanting and intimate look at a cast of characters that were larger than life, and remain so in the retelling and revisiting of stories. Readers not well steeped in Bloomsbury lore will find the Cast of Characters presented at the front of the book of enormous help. Parmar invites us to be flies on the wall, witnesses to these famous lives; gorgeous prose with a heart breaking ending brings these characters to life with a unique perspective.