Jo’s Pick of the Week: Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

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Sisters Vanessa Stephen Bell and Virginia Stephen Woolf

Author Priya Parmar’s exquisite new novel sheds light on the complicated relationship between two talented sisters, writer Virginia Stephen Woolf and painter Vanessa Stephen Bell.

The book begins in 1905 when the four Stephen siblings decide to move out of their childhood home in Hyde Park after their father dies to a seedier part of London called Bloomsbury. Vanessa as the oldest feels responsible for her other siblings, especially for her unstable sister Virginia. Vanessa knows how to deal with Virginia’s bouts of mental illness, which today would be diagnosed as bipolar disorder.b2ap3_thumbnail_vanessaandhersister.jpg

Vanessa, Virginia, and brothers Thoby and Adrian begin socializing with fledgling writers, artists and intellectuals at their Gordon Square house. This group eventually becomes known as the famous Bloomsbury Group. The book explores the early years of the Bloomsbury Group members before they find fame. The story is told mainly through the eyes of Vanessa in her diary entries and letters. Parmar also adds some letters and telegrams from Virginia, Lytton Stachey, Leonard Woolf and Roger Fry.

I found it helps to have a cheat sheet of the key names to keep everyone straight. In addition to the four Stephen siblings, the other key characters are:

  • Clive Bell, an art critic who later marries Vanessa Stephen;
  • Lytton Strachey, a writer who eventually makes his name as a biographer;
  • Roger Fry, an art critic and painter;
  • Leonard Woolf, a writer who marries Virginia Stephen;
  • E.M. Forster (known as Morgan or The Mole), who would become a famous novelist (A Room With a View);
  • John Maynard Keynes (known as Maynard), a future great economist;
  • Duncan Grant, a painter;
  • Margery “Snow” Snowden, a painter and close friend of Vanessa;
  • Desmond McCarthy, a journalist.

The audiobook of Vanessa and Her Sister was well done, with a cast of five readers giving voices to Virginia, Vanessa, Lytton, Leonard and Roger. Parma made me feel like I was a fly on the wall at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, eavesdropping on these intellectuals and their personal lives. Parma captured the devotion and deception between two amazing sisters who had yet to make their impact on the world.

Jo Hansen, jhansen@cooklib.org

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