cover image Vanessa and Her Sister

Vanessa and Her Sister

Priya Parmar. Ballantine, $26 (368p) ISBN 978-0-8041-7637-8

Parmar’s excellent sophomore effort (after Exit the Actress) contends mostly with the complicated relationship between the four Stephen siblings (including Vanessa, later known as Vanessa Bell, the painter, and Virginia, later known as Virginia Woolf). After a happy upbringing, the sisters are separated in their 20s by the death of their brother, Thoby, and Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell, Thoby’s college pal. Parmar does a stellar job conveying Virginia’s complicated, almost incestuous feelings for Vanessa, which are exacerbated by Virginia’s manic depression and need to be the center of attention. Distracted by the birth of her first child, Vanessa all but ignores Clive, who falls prey to Virginia’s efforts to insinuate herself into the marriage. Vanessa is torn by her love for her sister and an understanding of how her illness colors everything, as well as her own desire to have a life of her own. The author also deftly brings to life the various artists and writers who formed the nascent Bloomsbury group, heralding the arrival of Leonard Woolf—who eventually comes home to England and saves Virginia from spinsterhood. Structured primarily as Vanessa’s diary, with fictional letters from characters like Woolf and the journalist Lytton Strachey included, Parmar’s narrative is riveting and successfully takes on the task of turning larger-than-life figures into real people. Readers who aren’t familiar with the Bloomsbury group might be overwhelmed at first by the sheer number of characters in the book, but Parmar weaves their stories together so effortlessly that nothing seems out of place. (Jan.)