Book of the Month: March 2015


Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

The publisher opens its description of our March 2015 Book of the Month, Vanessa and Her Sister, with the emotional statement, “It can break your heart to have a sister like Virginia Woolf.” Most of us raised with a sibling can relate to the pain and joy inherent in this closest of familial relationships. As many of the recent historical fictions have done Priya Parmar’s stunning new novel gives voice to the lesser known of a pair.

Virginia Woolf wrote regularly in diaries from 1915 until four days before her death in 1941. When she died she left 26 volumes of bound diaries all written in her own hand. I have seen those handwritten pages, I have read those words, and I have wept at the depth of emotions that she was able to express through language. Two months before she filled her coat pockets with rocks and drowned she wrote, ” What is the phrase I always remember-or forget. Look your last on all things lovely.” She broke my heart almost 75 years later, one can only imagine what it felt like to be her sister Vanessa Bell, an artist in her own right but overshadowed by a willful, talented, mentally ill sister.

Priya Parmar has created her own epistolary representation of Vanessa not only giving her a voice but creating a complete and complex character surrounded by the often romanticized world of 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 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.


A former dramaturg and freelance editor, Priya Parmar was educated at Mount Holyoke College, The University of Oxford and The University of Edinburgh. She is the author of one previous novel, Exit the Actress. Priya and her husband and their French bulldog Herbert divide their time between Hawaii and London.

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