Vanessa and Her Sister

Vanessa and Her Sister

A Novel

Large Print - 2014
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A New York Times Notable Book * An Entertainment Weekly "Must List" Pick * "Prepare to be dazzled."--Paula McLain * "Quite simply astonishing."--Sarah Blake

What if Virginia Woolf's sister had kept a diary? For fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank comes a spellbinding new story of the inseparable bond between Virginia and her sister, the gifted painter Vanessa Bell, and the real-life betrayal that threatened to destroy their family. Hailed by The New York Times Book Review as "an uncanny success" and based on meticulous research, this stunning novel illuminates a little-known episode in the celebrated sisters' glittering bohemian youth among the legendary Bloomsbury Group.

London, 1905: The city is alight with change, and the Stephen siblings are at the forefront. Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby, and Adrian are leaving behind their childhood home and taking a house in the leafy heart of avant-garde Bloomsbury. There they bring together a glittering circle of bright, outrageous artistic friends who will grow into legend and come to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. And at the center of this charmed circle are the devoted, gifted sisters: Vanessa, the painter, and Virginia, the writer.

Each member of the group will go on to earn fame and success, but so far Vanessa Bell has never sold a painting. Virginia Woolf's book review has just been turned down by The Times . Lytton Strachey has not published anything. E. M. Forster has finished his first novel but does not like the title. Leonard Woolf is still a civil servant in Ceylon, and John Maynard Keynes is looking for a job. Together, this sparkling coterie of artists and intellectuals throw away convention and embrace the wild freedom of being young, single bohemians in London.

But the landscape shifts when Vanessa unexpectedly falls in love and her sister feels dangerously abandoned. Eerily possessive, charismatic, manipulative, and brilliant, Virginia has always lived in the shelter of Vanessa's constant attention and encouragement. Without it, she careens toward self-destruction and madness. As tragedy and betrayal threaten to destroy the family, Vanessa must decide if it is finally time to protect her own happiness above all else.

The work of exciting young newcomer Priya Parmar, Vanessa and Her Sister exquisitely captures the champagne-heady days of prewar London and the extraordinary lives of sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.

Praise for Vanessa and Her Sister

"Fiction and history merge seamlessly in this dazzling novel." -- Entertainment Weekly

"Being related to Virginia Woolf can't have been easy. In this delightful novel, Parmar re-imagines the brilliant, fragile writer and her turn-of-the-century bohemian friends, the famous Bloomsbury set. . . . You'll be spellbound." --People

"Rarely do you encounter a woman who commands as much admiration as does the painter Vanessa Bell in Priya Parmar's multilayered, subtly shaded novel. . . . She has caught the phantom." -- The New York Times Book Review

"[A] gossipy, entertaining historical novel . . . Parmar conjures a devastating fictional portrait." -- USA Today

"Captivating . . . echoes of Austen's Sense and Sensibility emerge in Parmar's portrayal." -- Newsday

"An elegant, entertaining novel that brings new life to the Bloomsbury Group's intrigues." -- The Dallas Morning News

From the Hardcover edition.
Publisher: New York : Random House Large Print, [2014]
Edition: First large print edition.
ISBN: 9780804194808
Branch Call Number: LARGE PRINT PARMAR P
Characteristics: xiii, 455 pages (large print) ; 24 cm.
large print


From the critics

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Sep 06, 2018

I read several contrasting reviews before getting this book. As many have observed, we know a lot about Virginia (also thanks to the superb biography by Hermione Lee) but not so much about her sister Vanessa. Well, I found the book very well researched, although some important events and people have been left out, such as Laura Makepeace Stephen, Virginia and Vanessa's half sister, who spent her life in a mental asylum. Much seems to be fictionalized in the book, so I am not sure how to feel about some characters. For example, although some other reviewers see Vanessa as a sort of self-complacent martyr, I find her actually very tolerant - too tolerant. Sure, she leads a life of leisure because the family was overall well-off, but she puts up with a lot of shenanigans from Clive, her despicable husband, and Virginia. Finally she puts her foot down and openly expresses her mind and why should we condemn her for that? Clive is a selfish, immoral pig (like Lytton Strachey rightly observes) who cheats on his wife and is a very distant father. Virginia seem to think that the world must necessarily revolve around her and her whims/wishes/demands. Granted, she has mental problems, but I also see in the character described in this book a large dose of malice. She had an affair with her sister's husband, under her nose! Perhaps the laws of moral and decency don't apply to great writers. In conclusion, this is not a book that I would suggest to a young reader, nor to anyone who is not familiar with the Bloomsbury Group. There are several different narrating voices and different writing styles, from letters to diary entries to train tickets, so it might get a bit confusing. But I definitely suggest reading it once the chain of events and the characters (dead and alive) are clear in one's mind.

Tedious read, written in the style of correspondence/diaries. I could not connect with the characters and abandoned the book half way through.

ArapahoeLesley Nov 09, 2016

I really did enjoy this book about Vanessa Bell mainly but also Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. Written half in diary entries and half in letters this novel is quick and quirky in it's delivery and Priya Parmar did an amazing job bringing the people and their time to life. This is the kind of book that makes me want to read as many non-fiction books on these subjects as possible then come back and read this book again!

Sep 09, 2016

This book is the imagined interior life of Vanessa Bell and major members of the Bloomsbury Group from 1905 to 1912. These lives are well documented and Parmar detracts rather than adds to one's understanding of them. As well, given the writings of Virginia Wolff and Maynard Keynes, this book is missing their sharp edges and critiques of society.

Bunny_Watson716 Mar 15, 2016

I've read many biographies about Virginia Woolf but don't know as much about her sister, Vanessa. I really enjoyed reading this book and imagining the Bloomsbury group through her eyes. You may not find the characters sympathetic, but those often make for the best kind of reading!

Feb 09, 2016

I was eager to learn more about Vanessa since Virginia’s life has been mined so thoroughly, but found myself hoping Parmar was off the mark. I dislike this Vanessa, the resentful martyr who holds her grudges hard and close, a passive-aggressive who loves and hates Virginia at the same time and picks over her every word and act looking for hidden significance.

Despite their privilege, the Stephen siblings had not had an easy life. Their parents had died and so had an older sister names Stella. Another older sister, Laura, had been institutionalized as mentally ill at age 15. Laura is never mentioned in this book which is a serious failing on Parmar’s part. Virginia is also mentally ill, likely with bipolar disorder at the least. Imagine having already been sent away once for a breakdown after a suicide attempt and knowing that your family had already tossed away the key on one sister? By tossing away the key, I mean that when Laura died, the home where she was institutionalized did not know she had any living relatives.

Vanessa saw herself as the one organizing and making a home, the one to whom all the responsibilities fell. Her resentment of this is clear again and again, but she does nothing to change the dynamic. There is such blindness to privilege on all their parts, and when Vanessa lists how hard she has worked, it is doing things like telling the cook what the make, giving handkerchiefs to the maid to sew, sending clothing to the staff to get cleaned, and opening the mail. Of course, compared to the rest of her family, she is a regular drudge of all work.

Virginia is difficult. She is driven by her need to write. She is also mentally ill. She has delusions that are very real to her. She perseverates. She refuses to eat. She rages. She is brilliant and sparkling when she is up and angry and frightening when she is down. She lacks emotional control and Vanessa is constantly watching for signs that she will need to be sedated or sent away for a “rest cure” or temporarily institutionalized. Vanessa scrutinizes her every word and action for signs of another breakdown, and resents that Virginia “gets away” with appalling behavior. I wonder if the real Vanessa was so lacking in empathy and also wonder if Parmar got that impression from Bell’s portraits of Woolf as a faceless woman.

The Virginia in Vanessa’s fictional diary is brilliant, captivating and utterly vicious, calculating and amoral. It is well-documented that Vanessa’s husband Clive fell in love with Virginia and that Virginia encouraged the attention, though never crossing over to a sexual affair, the emotional betrayal damaged her relationship with Vanessa forever. This fictional Vanessa, however, suggests to mutual friends that it was physical. She enjoys Virginia’s guilt and writes gloatingly about how she will never let up. The Iceland Poppies depicts their three part relationship and while fictional Vanessa says she does not know who is the red poppy, she or Virginia, I think we all know who the bottle of poison is.

This is good book. It is interesting and fast-paced. I dislike that Laura was left out of the book when clearly what happened to Laura explains how very frightening life must have been for Virginia and why she clung so desperately to her sister. That is a monumental injustice. I found myself in the end hoping that Parmar completely missed the mark–because I disliked her fictional Vanessa very much.

ser_library Aug 29, 2015

perhaps I have read too many diaries, letters, memoirs etc about V and V to have enjoyed this book; the errors annoyed me and some of the leaps of imagination seem improbable to me. Much preferred Sellers Vanessa and Virginia which is also an imagined diary by Vanessa

Jul 11, 2015

Well-written historical fiction.

May 25, 2015

It took me a while to get into this book, but once I did, I found it hard to put down this fictionalized account of Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa. It’s a great glimpse into the Bloomsbury group of intellectuals with whom they partied. It is a look at how mental illness changed the dynamics of a family.

debwalker Mar 12, 2015

Brilliantly told saga of the early years of the Bloomsbury Group and the convention-breaking household set up in Gordon Square by the four Stephen orphans. Keynes, Stratchey, etc before they became icons of the early 20th century, brought vividly to life. And the heart of the story - the intense and ultimately toxic relationship between two gifted sisters.

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