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Book Review

‘Vanessa and Her Sister’

2/11/2015

This intriguing work of historical fiction is told from the point of view of Vanessa Bell, a post-impressionist English painter who lived from 1879–1961. I have to admit, before reading this novel, I had never heard of her. On the other hand, her sister needed no introduction. She was the famously tortured writer, Virginia Woolf.

By Priya Parmar Ballantine 12/30/14 $26 368 pp

By Priya Parmar
Ballantine
12/30/14
$26
368 pp

In the early part of the 19th century, Vanessa and Virginia Stephen began to play host to a rather unorthodox weekly gathering. Besides the two unchaperoned young women, the group included their brothers (Thoby and Adrian) along with male friends from Cambridge. They were a collection of graduates, poets and artists who grew into a group of influential thinkers and commentators on many social and cultural subjects. At a personal level, they also challenged the social norms of the day, including their views on open marriage and homosexuality.

Priya Parmar has written an engrossing tale of the years 1905–1912, told primarily in the form of Vanessa’s diary, supplemented with correspondence between other members of the group. Parmar has done an excellent job of describing Virginia and her madness without letting it completely overwhelm Vanessa’s own story. But when Clive Bell convinces Vanessa to marry him, it sets off a disturbing triangle with the envious Virginia, and the close relationship between the sisters never fully recovers. CV

Courtesy of Beaverdale Books

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Shirley Shiffler grew up in Urbandale, graduated from Drake University (twice!), and lives in the Beaverdale neighborhood.

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