My review of Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar

It can break your heart to have a sister like Virginia Woolf.

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 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.

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books (December 30, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080417637X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804176378 


Author, Priya Parmar bravely fictionalizes the happenings of The Bloomsbury Group members: Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell (Vanessa's husband), E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes with familial issues between siblings Adrian and Thoby, with a compliicated and competitive sibling relationship between older sister Vanessa Stephen and Virginia Stephen.  Vanessa and her sister opens in 1905 with a party involving brothers Thoby and Adrian and covers the years through until Virginia's marriage to Leonard Woolf in 1912.  The novel is easily presented in an invented diary format from Vanessa Bell's perspective.  We have Virginia's diary or notebooks with her thoughts and her letters but Vanessa's real diary has never been discovered yet! The author has researched The Stephen sisters and their friends and siblings through reading their letters and used them in chapter formats throughout this novel.  There are minor discrepancies such as months are written a bit later than the actual months but that does not take away from how much I enjoyed Vanessa and her Sister. I am no expert on Virginia Woolf who is the much more well known sibling and I did not purposefully look for changes the author made factually throughout their lives but they are there in minor format if you look for them. 

Priya Parmar brings Vanessa Bell center stage standing in the spotlight as painter and flesh and blood woman who paints as a creative outlet in dealing with her psychologically and emotionally scarred childhood wounds.  Her sister Virginia is very co-dependent on her. Together they forge a sibling bond that will be torn apart by cheating and one sister's decision.  Vanessa and her Sister could've been very heady reading but the author intelligently uses each member's passion for creating as a plot base for this novel making it a page turner for anyone curious about the entire Bloomsbury Group. It is all here in gorgeous prose. The diary format is a wonderful tool choice to use making the reader want to keep reading because they feel as if they are sitting across from Vanessa Bell who is retelling some of the hardest years of her life (1905-1912). 

I learned a lot about Vanessa Bell and will do my own research as always. However, how refreshing to read a novel from a sister's perspective removing the focus solely off of VIRGINIA WOOLF. Vanessa must have felt in her younger sister's shadow her whole life juxtaposed against their very famous and loved beautiful mother, Julia Stephen. Here, Vanessa shines and I hope readers will enjoy Vanessa and her Sister as much as I have. It truly is beautifully written and for me is a family story novel that needed to be written. 

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing me with an online reader copy.  

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Evie Hodgson said…
Nice review. l shall look forward to reading it now.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Evie,
I'm so glad you stopped by and left a comment. Much appreciated. I hope you really love the novel.
Laura Morrigan said…
Wow, this sounds really interesting! I will check it out!
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Laura,
Hopefully, you'll enjoy it as much as I have. I appreciate you stopping by,
Kevin Marsh said…
Having been to Charleston in Sussex where Vanessa Bell and her husband set up a house for the Bloomsbury set, I feel that this book would be good to read. I visit Charleston almost every year and it would be great to get to know the characters more by reading this book.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Kevin,
You are so lucky to have visited. I forgot to mention that Vanessa and her sister is now published in kindle and paperback in the UK now! Thanks for stopping by!