Summary and book reviews of Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and Her Sister

by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2014, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2015, 368 pages

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Book Summary

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.

For fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank comes a captivating novel that offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of Vanessa Bell, her sister Virginia Woolf, and the controversial and popular circle of intellectuals known as the 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.

Excerpt
Vanessa and Her Sister

Virginia Woolf
Asheham House
Rodmell
Sussex

2 December 1912--Asheham

Dearest Nessa,

She arrived in an inauspicious brown crate. Your painting is smaller and rougher than I expected. Mrs. Virginia Woolf in a Deckchair--what a marvelously blunt title. Without it, I am not sure anyone would know it is me given the empty face but Leonard says he recognized the set of the shoulders right away.

Where shall I put your beautiful canvas? Leonard thinks the upstairs hallway. Would you choose when you come down next week? You know how I like it when you decide these things. You are still coming down?

There is an unrushed calm about your Mrs. Woolf. Is this how you see me now, dearest? The woman in the painting looks whole and serene and loved. Am I still loveable? Or have I undone that now?

No, Nessa, it must not be. What happened cannot break us. It is impossible. Someday you will love me and forgive me. Someday we will begin again.

Always your
Virginia

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. When the novel opens, their father has died and the Stephen siblings have moved from their childhood home in Kensington to bohemian Bloomsbury.  Why do you think Vanessa chose to uproot her siblings and move to such a radically different part of town?  What sort of change is she trying to bring about for her family?

  2. Vanessa tells us that her family value words and books over painting and visual arts. How do you think growing up in such a family affected Vanessa's view of herself as an artist? Would you rather be a writer or a painter?

  3. Vanessa has always protected and supported Virginia, and has excused much of her difficult and unsocial behavior.  Do you think Vanessa's tolerance gives Virginia permission to behave ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Parmar details the conflicted relationship between the sisters beautifully, and with compassion. The portrait of Vanessa as a sister, wife, mother, and artist painted by the author reveals her love, kindness, patience and determination to succeed, both personally and professionally. I especially love the irony that Vanessa is given a voice that soars and sings with humor, insight, and brilliance, qualities traditionally recognized only in her sister Virginia.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

Full Review (828 words).

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Media Reviews

Library Journal

The book's strength lies in the well-written relationship between Vanessa and Virginia, sure to appeal to fans of Michael Cunningham's The Hours.

Publishers Weekly

Starred review. Parmar's narrative is riveting and successfully takes on the task of turning larger-than-life figures into real people.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Parmar enters it with passion and precision, delivering a sensitive, superior soap opera of celebrated lives.

Author Blurb Philippa Gregory
Priya Parmar is a powerful new voice in historical fiction. This novel explores the anguished relationship between the Woolf sisters and provides a new view of the artistic, sensual Bloomsbury world, placing Vanessa Bell at the heart of the story.

Author Blurb Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife
Priya Parmar is on a high-wire act all her own in this radiantly original novel about the Bloomsbury Set. Irrepressible, with charm and brio to spare, Vanessa and Her Sister boldly invites us to that moment in history when famous minds sparked and collided, shaping the terrain of art and letters...Prepare to be dazzled.

Author Blurb Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank
i>Vanessa and Her Sister kidnapped me for a couple of days. I couldn't put it down.

Author Blurb Sarah Blake, author of The Postmistress
Vanessa and Her Sister is beautiful and wise, and as deft as a stroke upon the canvas.

Reader Reviews

Diane S.

Vanessa and her sister
Starting in 1904, this novel spans six years in the life of the Stephen family and the very talented members who make up the Bloomsbury group. I loved this book and loved that the novel is told from the journal or diary writings of Vanessa Bell. ...   Read More

Jean N. (New Richmond, OH)

Vanessa and Her Sister
Without the list of "who's who" at the beginning of the book, I would have been totally lost. It was slow going at first, but the book picked up after being initially confusing. I'm glad that I kept reading, because it turned out to be a ...   Read More

Judy B. (Marysville, OH)

I loved this book!
I was so excited to read this book because I am a long-time devoted reader of all things Virginia Woolf, including reading the 6 volumes of her letters and the 5 volumes of her diary--twice! (I know, get a life!) Priya Parmar's book is ...   Read More

Marie A. (Warner, NH)

A View Into The Lives of the Bloomsbury Group
Priya Parmar does a commendable job in weaving fact with fiction in VANESSA AND HER SISTER. The author's technique of Vanessa's journal entries and correspondence via letters and telegrams among members of the Bloomsbury group adds to the uniqueness...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Bloomsbury Group

While Vanessa And Her Sister focuses on artist Vanessa Bell and her writer sister, Virginia Woolf, it also places them in the larger context of the famous Bloomsbury Group, which was a set of intellectuals who debated radical ideas about society, ethics and a host of other issues. Founding members included Virginia Woolf and her siblings - sister, Vanessa Bell, and brothers Thoby and Adrian. Other key members included critic and biographer Giles Lytton Strachey, and the writer E.M. Forster. Even noted economist Joseph Maynard Keynes was a central figure. While the group became friends in college (most of the "Bloomsberries" men studied at Cambridge's Trinity or King's College), it was not until Virginia and her siblings moved into a home in...

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