May 13, 2009

Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers

In Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers, Vanessa succinctly summarizes her relationship with her legendary sister, Virginia Woolf: “I might struggle against the call, I might even try to quell it, but my existence was not separate from yours.” The novel tells of the sisters’ childhood as they cope with a rash of ugly deaths and develop their talents. It then follows them as they marry, reproduce, and negotiate their fame and obscurity. It discreetly touches on depression, incest, and suicide without much depth instead relying on the rivalry between the sisters to provide the story’s tension.

This slim novel is told through “impressionistic” accounts which are more like mini scenes with no linear time progression. Many pages detail dreams or vivid descriptions of Vanessa’s paintings. It’s is Vanessa’s version we get, but she addresses the entire book to her departed sister Virginia which generates an odd mix of first person/second person narrative. This effective approach lets the reader stand in for Virginia Woolf hence becoming privy to the candid conversation of sisters. The way Sellers constructs this story is as telling of the characters as the actual events she describes.

Sellers doesn’t stray far from what is known in her depiction of these tortured artists. Although this story relates the sisters’ story as it affects Vanessa, by forcing the readers to consider Vanessa’s point of view, one must reconsider Virginia. The novel wavers from brilliant to annoyingly flowery and will most likely amuse Woolf’s fans. However, Vanessa and Virginia will definitely endear itself to sisters as they recognize their own relationships amongst the familial rivalry.

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