HOW TO ESCAPE A SIBLING’S SHADOW: Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar


U.S. Book Cover

Vanessa and Her Sister
by Priya Parmar
Ballantine Books, December 30, 2014.
Doubleday Canada, January 20, 2015.
368 pages, 25.00$ (USA) 29.95$ (Canada)


The mythology surrounding Virginia Woolf still possesses us a century after she wrote her first novel. Woolf had a severe nervous breakdown, as a young woman, after the death of her father. For the rest of her life, she had tempestuous moods and couldn’t rid herself of her demons. What was it like for her loved ones to live with such an ingenious, yet tortured, writer? Priya Parmar explores this question in her new novel Vanessa And Her Sister.

The narrative is made up almost exclusively of fictional journal entries by Virginia’s older sister, Vanessa Bell. The entries cover nearly a decade of the Stephen sisters’ lives, from August 1905 to December 1912. It is a time when Virginia and Vanessa come of age, find their artistic voices, and make life-changing choices.

Vanessa’s written words give us glimpses of her awe, worry, and intimidation toward her sister’s talent:

“Writing is Virginia’s engine. She thrums with purpose when she writes. Her scattershot joy and frantic distraction refocus, and she funnels into her purest form. Her center holds until the piece is over, and she comes apart again.”


Canadian Book Cover

Over time, Vanessa embraces her own strength and finds confidence as a Post-Impressionist painter. She’s the unwavering sister who tends to the needs of the family, of Virginia in particular. She walks on eggshells around Virginia, who demands her attention and love. Always.

A few letters, telegrams, and postcards from their circle of friends —a close-knit group of artists, writers, and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Set— add other perspectives to the sisters’ story. I particularly liked the portrayal of writer Lytton Strachey whose flowery, lively letters to Virginia’s future husband gave us a keener understanding of the lesser-known Stephen sister:

“Vanessa is an ocean of majestic calm even if she does not know it. Virginia envies her sister’s deeply anchored moorings. Nessa is powered by some internal metronome that keeps perfect time, while the rest of us seem to flounder about in a state of breathless pitching exaggeration, carried by momentum rather than purpose.”


I read the Kindle edition. Although gorgeous, the font of some of the letters and telegrams were small and more difficult to read.

At times, Vanessa’s narrative becomes overwhelmed with intricate dialogue and historical explanations (like: “unmarried ladies like Irene have their breakfast in the dining room”).  In such instances, we lose the feel of reading an old, intimate journal. When immersed in an epistolary novel, the readers should always feel like they are sneaking glimpses into real documents. I felt pulled out of the story when the journal entries no longer felt authentic.

Overall, I enjoyed Vanessa and Her Sister. The love and conflict felt real, and Parmar brought a past era to life. The reading experience made me even more curious about Vanessa Bell and her art. I now look forward to the three-part BBC series Life in Squares about the two sisters, to air in 2015.

*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*


9 thoughts on “HOW TO ESCAPE A SIBLING’S SHADOW: Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

  1. I have to confess that I still have not read anything by Virginia Woolf, although I own two or three of her books. They are just waiting for me… But some people seem to love her while others don’t, so I continue to push her off. This book sounds interesting, though. And, the mini series would be fun to watch!

    • Carole Besharah says:

      Full disclosure: I appreciate Virginia Woolf’s writing, but I do not LOVE her work. Stream of consciousness is not my thing. I do find her life fascinating. I seem to like works about Woolf better than works by Woolf. That makes me sad, but it’s the truth.

      This book was the perfect choice for the start of my vacation. I hope the mini series will be good.

      Thanks for reading!

      • Ditto on her writing and the fascination of her life and the whole Bloomsbury crowd. (I seem to have the same disconnect/fascination with the Left Bank peoples). I found (and bought) an uncorrected proof of A Movable Feast with a nifty little ‘from the library of’ sticker. And the library was David Garnett’s. Or Bunny, as he was known, among the Bloomsburies. It’s not a very useful tidbit; hardly worth mentioning at a cocktail party, but it makes meeeeee happy. Which is all a very long way of saying I can’t WAIT to read this book and am so glad you reviewed it.

      • Carole Besharah says:

        You have an uncorrected proof of A Movable Feast!!?? What a find!!! I’m glad to see others have such fascinations about authors and author circles.

        Don’t even get me started of the Rive Gauche crowd! I love Renée Vivien, Wharton, Sartre…So. Much. In fact, I sometimes think that is Virginia and Renée had crossed paths, they might have fallen madly in love and both lived, happily… sigh.

        Cheers Chris!

  2. Joelle Ethier says:

    I wonder if living with a stream of consciousness author is like living with a method actor? Sounds like an interesting read from that perspective…

    • Carole Besharah says:

      Hmmm… I think Woolf was quite a handful. Of course, this book is fictional and we cannot confuse the author’s inventions for facts. The author did a great job of interpreting the crazy stories we have heard about Woolf, though.

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