What To Read This Month

Vanessa & Virginia by Susan Sellers

Troubled genius Virginia Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway) and her older sister, Vanessa Bell, a portrait and landscape artist (her notable works include a painting of Aldous Huxley), are the sisters at the center of this first novel by scholar Susan Sellers. Both women were members of London’s Bloomsbury Group, that fabled coterie of artists and writers in the early 1900s. Virginia may have been the group’s most famous member, but this story is written from Vanessa’s perspective, as a memorial addressed to Virginia in the aftermath of her suicide.
Sellers’ impressionistic prose evokes the near-magical artistic world the two innovative women inhabited. She highlights the interplay of their creative thinking and ways in which they inspired each other. Of To the Lighthouse, Vanessa says, "I could only marvel at your gift … For once, what you had accomplished was so momentous it advanced us both." The author also captures the color and nuance of Vanessa’s vision: "I paint on a wooden panel, large enough for a reclining nude," Vanessa says. "I mix gray and white to my pink, add traces of violet and gold. I want the flesh to look newly exposed, as if a sea creature has been peeled of its shell." Equally vivid are the descriptions of the salons Vanessa held in Bloomsbury for her siblings and celebrated friends, events that became "so notorious, so much discussed, so revered in some quarters and satirized in others."
Vanessa recalls the sisters’ childhood rivalry for their mother’s love; their shared grief over the loss of their mother, sister, father, and brother in tragic proximity; and their pioneering lives as independent women. "We became each other’s mirrors," Vanessa notes of their early years. She envies Virginia’s literary fame yet melts when her younger sister needs her. During Virginia’s breakdowns, Vanessa is like a mother to her; and Virginia provides comfort through Vanessa’s own despairing moments.
Vanessa & Virginia  (Harcourt) is a thorough portrait of the complicated dance of sisters — women who are alike and unlike, connected and apart, loving yet still, at times, painfully at odds.
Jane Ciabattari is the president of the National Book Critics Circle and the author of the short story collection Stealing the Fire.
Originally published in MORE magazine, May 2009.

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