Vanessa & Virginia by Susan Sellers is a novel that imagines the relationship between Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, sisters and alleged artistic rivals as told solely through the first person perspective of Vanessa. (At first this confused me because the title implied that the story would be told through both women but by the end of the second chapter I realized that this was Vanessa's story about her life and relationship with Virginia.) I suppose it is inevitable to compare this new novel with The Hours by Michael Cunningham and this is unfortunate because while the latter is brilliant the former is clever, at best. Frankly, I’m not convinced it is even that. But it is an interesting attempt at envisioning the relationship between these two women who lived their lives in a way that more often than not flouted societal moors during a time when women were finally empowering themselves, gaining the vote, etc. Unfortunately, where this book most blatantly fails the author's assumption that the reader knows something about the sisters. Names are dropped or alluded to without much if a context. Even when there is a war in England, it is not clarified which war is being experienced. Only a reader who knows when the two were born would know that the first war mentioned is The Great War, World War I. A reader who lacks the contextual relevance of the details will not appreciate much that is given.
It also fails in the obvious complication of Woolf's suicidal depression that seems to barely touch Bell's own life or emotions. Distressed to see her sister's suffering, never does she seem to contemplate her own mental stability or how she, herself, may be dealing with depression. Given the artistic leaning of both sister's, I find it remarkable that Bell, as defined and delineated by Sellers, is so distanced from everyone and everything beyond her own narcissism. There is also the fact that Sellers has chosen to allude to the more salacious speculations about the sisters’ lives and, while I appreciate her not going into details of incest, there is really no narrative reason to imply, as the back-cover also mentions, the “possible” lesbian/incest connection between the two. Because Sellers only alludes to these things, they are never fully realized and the consequences to the psyches of the characters are not explored. Bold enough to mention them, Sellers completely drops the ball by not delving deeply into the damage that incest creates within a family. Someone who is not familiar with Virginia Woolf, let alone her less iconic sister, the Bloomsbury group, or the final outcome of the story will not enjoy this novel. Sellers not only chooses to tell the story only from the point-of-view of Vanessa—a choice that ultimately is best—also has the protagonist writing not to a general reader but a specific one. Specifically her sister, Virginia.
The intrusion of “you,” meaning Virginia, creates an odd disconnect. The tone of the writing is not intimate, does not sound at all like a letter or even an intimate memoir of one person’s love for another. And yet the intimacy of a first-person I writing to a second-person you is felt and creates an oddly removed relationship between the real “you,” the reader of the text, and the text itself. An author should never aspire to remove the reader from the text and this is the end result of this odd style choice. Only a die hard Woolf follower would want to read this novel only to be disappointed; someone who is not familiar with Woolf will not have the patience with the style or tone of the novel. In other words, I cannot imagine an audience for this novel. Perhaps had Sellers dared to go more deeply into her subjects, as she would have done had this been nonfiction, those who adore or at least are versed in Woolf's works and life would read with enthusiasm. As it is, there's really nothing new or even remarkably interesting to be experienced in the pages of this book.