Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Anna May Wong

Over the weekend, I went with friends to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While we were there, I took the opportunity to go through the China: Through the Looking Glass exhibit again (I discovered that I’d completely missed two whole floors of the exhibit). Once again, I was drawn to the section of the exhibit dealing with Anna May Wong (1905-1961) who was the first Chinese American movie star. Along with her costume from Limehouse Blues, the exhibit featured dresses that were inspired by dresses that Anna May had worn in her films, along with clips of several of her movies including Toll of the Sea, one of the first Technicolor films, Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich (one of her best remembered films), and Limehouse Blues where George Raft unfortunately cast as Asian.  Even with the sound off, Anna May Wong is so vibrant and alive in these clips, particularly the scenes from Toll of the Sea (1922) which is based on Madame Butterfly. The film and Anna May’s performance seem incredibly modern, not dated at all. It’s hard to believe that she was only 17 when the movie was made.

During her career she made dozens of films in Hollywood, London and Berlin. She was glamorous and sophisticated; photographers flocked to take her portrait. Despite never having graduated high school, she was worldly and articulate, with friends like Carl van Vechten, Evelyn Waugh and Paul Robeson. Yet she spent most of her career typecast either as a demure, submissive, painted doll ‘Butterfly’ roles or a scheming Dragon Lady. Some people see Anna May as a victim of Hollywood, condemned to play stereotyped Asian roles — lotus flower or dragon lady, and shouldered aside by white actors such as Luise Rainer and Myrna Loy in yellow face. Anna May Wong’s reputation has suffered over the years because of the roles that she played. The older generation blame her for playing stereotypical roles in the same way that Hattie McDaniel was condemned for playing maids. It’s hard to be the first one, whether it’s flying across the Atlantic or becoming the first Chinese-American film star. People had expectations that Anna found almost impossible to fulfill. She had no role models to look up to. And Hollywood didn’t jump at the chance to develop films for her or groom her for stardom. They just didn’t see her as leading lady material.

The newspapers and film critics in China were also harsh in their criticism of her film roles, that they were shameful. As if she were in a position to pick and choose, and she just chose the ones that had her playing prostitutes and dragon ladies. They didn’t know what to make of her, she looked Chinese but she was thoroughly American, with her western clothes and California accent. She partied hard, dancing the Charleston, the fox-trot and the tango, showing her knees.

Anna was born and raised in L.A., the daughter of a laundryman and his wife who were both second generation Chinese-American. She was given the name Wong Liu Tsong which means “yellow willow frost” on January 3, 1905.  She was the second child and second girl, eventually the family included several more children including the much longed for sons. She didn’t grow up in Chinatown but just outside it, in a neighborhood of mainly Mexican and European residents.  Initially Anna and her older sister went to a public school but after enduring racial taunts from her classmates, her parents enrolled them in a Presbyterian Chinese school. The classes were taught in English, but Anna attended a Chinese language school on the weekends. Although Anna's family had been in the United States since before the Civil War, they were still subject to intense scrutiny.  Chinese immigration had been curtailed since the 1880's.  Every time Anna made plans to travel abroad, she had to fill out paperwork detailing her plans, otherwise there was also the chance that she would not be able to return. Given her outspokenness, it wouldn't be surprising to find that the FBI kept a file on her activities. 

Like many teenage girls, Anna May dreamed of being in the movies.  She would sneak out of school, spending all the money she had saved going to the movies. But she managed to achieve her dream, first as an extra in films and then later on in featured and secondary roles.  Lucky for her that the movies had relocated from the East Coast to the sunny climate of Southern California.  Movies were being made in and around her neighborhood. From childhood, Anna May was pestering the filmmakers to get them to allow her to be in the movies. Eventually Anna May dropped out of high school to focus full-time on acting. “I was so young when I began that I knew I still had youth if I failed, so I determined to give myself 10 years to succeed as an actress.”

Despite her success, Anna May struggled her whole career to take somehow imbue the stereotypical roles she was cast in into something more.  She worked closely with the costume designers and hair and make-up artists to create her characters, often bringing in clothes from home to wear.  She lobbied hard to play the lead role in the MGM film of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth only to discover that to the producers, she “too Chinese to play Chinese”. The Chinese government also apparently advised against casting her in the role.  Anna had to see a role that she had dreamed of playing given to a white Austrian woman, Luise Rainer, who won her first Academy Award for the role.  Instead, Anna was offered the only unsympathetic role in the film.

The production code of the 1930’s stymied her career.  Interracial love was taboo. If a non-Asian actor was cast to play an Asian male, Anna could not share an on-screen kiss with him. There was only one leading Asian man in U.S. films in the silent era, Sessue Hayakawa. Until other Asian leading men could be found, Anna’s career was stifled. In interviews, she was outspoken out the dangers of typecasting.  The salary that she was paid were nowhere near comparable to what her white counterparts or even her Asian male co-stars.  For Daughter of the Dragon (1931) Wong was paid $6,000 compared to Sessue Hayakawa who was paid $10,000 or Warner Oland who made $12,000 for 23 minutes of screen time.

In Europe, Anna May found fewer casting restrictions.  In 1934’s Java Head, she actually got to kiss the white actor who played her husband on screen. She made her stage debut in play based on an Edgar Wallace novel starring a young Laurence Olivier as well as 5 films in England over the years.  Moving on to Germany, she made four films before the Nazi’s came to power.  Anna picked up languages easily, adding German and French to her repertoire.  While in Germany, she became friends with Marlene Dietrich, leading to rumors that the two women were lovers which damaged her reputation and embarrassed her family. Even in Europe, Anna was considered wonderfully foreign, there were few Chinese living in England, France or Germany.  In some ways, she was like a exotic pet at the zoo.


Throughout her career, Anna May worked diligently on her craft. When English critics complained that her voice was too American, she learned to speak with an English accent.  She took voice lessons to work on her voice so that it could be heard in the theatre.  When film roles were thin on the ground, Anna May created a cabaret act which she toured through Europe and the United States. After the disappointment of losing the role of O-Lan in the film version of The Good Earth, Anna May decided it was time to visit China.  Her father and younger siblings had all moved back to the tiny village of her ancestors. She spent a year touring China, studying Mandarin and Chinese culture.  Her plans were to eventually bring English translations of Chinese plays to the West to promote a better understanding of Chinese culture.  Unfortunately those plans never came to fruition.

Returning to Hollywood in the late 1930s, Anna May Wong starred in a series of B pictures, where she finally got play Chinese Americans in a more positive light including King of Chinatown where she portrayed a surgeon! Once America entered World War II, Wong turned her attention more towards fundraising, devoting her time and her money to helping the Chinese cause against the Japan. Post-war, Anna returned to acting, but on television rather than film. In 1951, she had her own series entitled The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, which was the first U.S. television show featuring an Asian-American lead.

Her personal life was just as tumultuous as her screen career. At 17, she had an affair with the director Tod Browning who was not only older but married as well.  Most of her relationships were with white men, which Anna May kept out of the public eye. An interracial relationship would have ended her career. She was openly admitted in interviews that she would most likely never marry, claiming that Chinese and Chinese-American men found her too independent. Her sister, Mary Wong, who had also pursued a career in film, committed suicide.  Suffering on and off from depression, Anna began to drink and smoke heavily, which over the years began to take its toll on her health. Still she forged on with her career, receiving a start on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.  She was just about to start shooting Flower Drum Song in 1961, when she died suddenly of a heart attack during her sleep. She was only 56.

Further reading:

Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend, Hong Kong University Press; 1 edition (June 1, 2012)

Anne Helen Petersen, Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema, Plume (September 30, 2014)

Mark Bailey, Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling through Hollywood History, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014.


Monday, June 1, 2015

June Books of the Month

It's been awhile since I posted but also since I've done a Book of the Month post. This month I have two great books to tell you about:  Hissing Cousins by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer and Model Woman by Robert Lacey.

Hissing Cousins was published by Penguin Random House at the end of March. I've slowly been dipping into the book thanks to Net Galley.  If you watched the recent Ken Burns documentary on The Roosevelts on PBS than you will definitely want to read this book. It gives the readers a more upclose and personal view on the relationship between Eleanor and Alice and also the dynamics between the Oyster Bay Roosevelts and the Hyde Park Roosevelts.

ABOUT HISSING COUSINS: A lively and provocative double biography of first cousins Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, two extraordinary women whose tangled lives provide a sweeping look at the twentieth century. 


When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, his beautiful and flamboyant daughter was transformed into “Princess Alice,” arguably the century’s first global celebrity. Thirty-two years later, her first cousin Eleanor moved into the White House as First Lady. Born eight months and twenty blocks apart from each other in New York City, Eleanor and Alice spent a large part of their childhoods together and were far more alike than most historians acknowledge. 

But their politics and temperaments couldn’t have been more distinct. Do-gooder Eleanor was committed to social justice but hated the limelight; acid-tongued Alice, who became the wife of philandering Republican congressman Nicholas Longworth, was an opponent of big government who gained notoriety for her cutting remarks (she famously quipped that dour President Coolidge “looked like he was weaned on a pickle”). While Eleanor revolutionized the role of First Lady with her outspoken passion for human rights, Alice made the most of her insider connections to influence politics, including doing as much to defeat the League of Nations as anyone in elective office.


My second book of the month is Model Woman by Robert Lacey.  Back in olden times, also known as the 20th century, Michael Gross wrote a revealing book about the modeling industry called appropriately enough MODEL which detailed the history from its infancy all the way through the then crop of supermodels.  Robert Lacey deals in depth with the woman who really changed everything for the better and the worst, Eileen Ford. This book is not a salacious biography along the lines of say someone like Kitty Kelley or Jerry Oppenheimer.  This is a very even-handed biography of a very interesting woman.

From the back cover:

Eileen Ford, working with her husband, Jerry, created the twentieth century's largest and most successful modeling agency, representing some of the fashion world's most famous names—Suzy Parker, Carmen Dell'Orefice, Lauren Hutton, Rene Russo, Christie Brinkley, Jerry Hall, Christy Turlington, and Naomi Campbell. Her relentless ambition turned the business of modeling into one of the most glamorous and desired professions, helping to convert her stable of beautiful faces into millionaire superstars.

Model Woman chronicles the Ford Modeling Agency's meteoric rise to the top of the fashion and beauty business, and paints a vibrant portrait of the uncompromising woman at its helm in all her glittering, tyrannical brilliance. Outspoken and controversial, Ford was never afraid to offend in defense of her stringent standards. When she chose, she could deliver hauteur in the grand tradition of fashion's battle-axes, from Coco Chanel to Diana Vreeland—just ask John Casablancas or Janice Dickinson. But she was also a shrewd businesswoman with a keen eye for talent and a passion for serving her clients.

Drawing on more than four years of intensive interviews with Ford and her intimates, associates, and rivals, as well as exclusive access to agency documents and memorabilia, Robert Lacey weaves an unforgettable tale of a determined entrepreneur and the empire she built—a story of beauty, ambition, business, and popular culture as powerful and complex as the woman at its center.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Winner of the Michelle Moran Giveaway!!!!!

So sorry that it has taken me this long to announce the winner of the Giveaway but family drama, and snow etc. meant that instead of posting on Valentine's Day (was my plan), I am announcing the winner of The Rebel Queen giveaway today:




Stephanie Grant

Congratulations Stephanie.  I will be emailing you to get your address.


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Author Michelle Moran on Janam Kundlis and Giveaway!!!!!

Scandalous Women is pleased to have a guest post by author Michelle Moran.  Her new book The Rebel Queen about Queen Lakshmi—India’s Joan of Arc—who against all odds defied the mighty British invasion to defend her beloved kingdom, will be published March 3rd.

With every book I write, I discover something about the culture I’m researching which completely blows me away, often because it’s so unusual and something I’ve never encountered before. In the case of my book, REBEL QUEEN, set in India during the British invasion, the concept of Janam Kundlis struck a chord with me, particularly since Janam Kundlis very nearly played a role in my own life and my marriage to my husband, who is Indian.

Also known as an astrological chart, a Janam Kundli is made by a priest for each child in India. No one is sure when the concept of a Janam Kundli came to be, but as Vedic astrology is several thousand years old, it’s not surprising that my protagonist’s Janam Kundli would have looked similar to my husband’s,­ even though they were born more than a hundred years apart. A person’s Janam Kundli includes the details of their birth–time, date, planetary alignments. It also includes other things which aren’t so common in the West, such as that person’s probable future career and who they were in their most recent past life (in my husband’s case, a yogi!).

Reading a person’s natal chart is serious business. Once a person’s Janam Kundli is created, they will keep that document with them for life, producing it when it’s time for marriage. Even today, Janam Kundlis are used to make prospective matches between brides and grooms throughout India, where the majority of marriages are arranged. And woe betide anyone whose Janam Kundli declares them to be a manglik, or a bad-luck person. If that’s the case, as it was for the famous Bollywood actress and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai, one of two options are available. You can either marry another manglik, thus canceling out your bad-luck status, or you can hire a priest to conduct a variety of ceremonies that will make it possible to marry someone who isn’t a manglik like yourself. This last option, however, is only available if the non-manglik person’s family finds the risk acceptable. In Aishwarya Rai’s case, her in-laws obviously felt the “risk” was worth it, and in 2007 she married a tree before she married her husband, thereby canceling out her bad-luck in this way.

Why a tree? Well, this was something I very nearly discovered myself when my own Janam Kundli was made. Apparently, like Aishwarya Rai, I too am probably a manglik, meaning marriage for me would most likely end in the divorce or death of my spouse. I say probably because my Janam Kundli was done online. The effect, however, was very nearly the same. Major discussions took place as to whether I would need to marry a tree before the wedding could proceed, or whether my Janam Kundli should be discounted since I am not, after all, Indian, and my Janam Kundli hadn’t “officially” been made by a priest.

In the end, it was decided that my husband should take the risk and go for it. I never had to marry a tree or even choose among a variety of clay urns for my groom. Either option, apparently, is acceptable, as it’s believed that a person’s manglik dosh can be canceled out if the manglik person’s bad luck is spent on the first marriage. Thus, the bride first marries a clay urn or a tree, then either breaks the clay urn or chops down her tree-husband in order to become a “widow” (in some places, the tree is allowed to survive). After this, the second marriage is ready to proceed without a hitch.

There are varying interpretations of this ceremony, and even though it didn’t end up affecting me, a person’s Janam Kundli can alter their destiny, just as I describe in the beginning of REBEL QUEEN. It’s cultural gems like these which make researching historical fiction such a pleasure, and it’s these type of details which I try to include in each of my books. As a writer, my hope is that they pique the reader’s interest along the way, and as a reader, they are the sort of facts which help ground me in another place and time.

Thank you Michelle! Scandalous Women will be giving away a copy of Michelle's new book to one lucky winner along with these lovely bangles.



Giveaway (US only)

- To enter, please leave a comment below and include your email address (only comments with email addresses will be entered in the giveaway).
- If you are not a follower and become one, you get an extra entry
- If you tweet about the giveaway, you get an extra entry.
- If you like my Scandalous Women Facebook page, you get an extra entry.

Good luck!
- Giveaway ends on February 12th.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

New Review: Rodin's Lover by Heather Webb

Title:  Rodin’s Lover
Author:  Heather Webb (Becoming Josephine)
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 1/27/2015
Pages: 320
How Acquired:  Through Publisher

What it’s about:  As a woman, aspiring sculptor Camille Claudel has plenty of critics, especially her ultra-traditional mother. But when Auguste Rodin makes Camille his apprentice—and his muse—their passion inspires groundbreaking works. Yet, Camille’s success is overshadowed by her lover’s rising star, and her obsessions cross the line into madness.

My thoughts:   I initially had trepidations about reading this book. I did a great deal of research on Camille Claudel for the chapter that I wrote in Scandalous Women, and I feel a bit proprietary about her. She was one of several women that I was just obsessed with.  I related to her struggle to be an independent artist, to forge a separate artistic identity from the man that she loved passionately. Her mental breakdown is heartbreaking.  Was she schizophrenic, bi-polar? Or was she even mentally ill at all are just some of the questions that come up when you read about the life of Camille Claudel. I wondered if a single novel could capture the complexity of this tormented genius.  And a genius she was.  All you have to do is look at the photos of her sculptures on line to see her amazing talent.

I’m happy to report that Rodin’s Lover calmed all my fears.  Heather Webb miraculously brings to life the volatile love affair between Rodin, arguably one of the era’s greatest artists and Camille Claudel.  When we first meet Camille, she is eighteen years old and bursting with talent.  Her one aim is to escape her provincial village and become one of the greatest sculptors of all time.  But from the very beginning Camille has to fight tooth and nail to develop her talent.  While her father believes that she will one day bring glory to the family name, her mother believes that Camille is unnatural for wanting to pursue art instead of marriage and children.  When an opportunity arises for Camille to study in Paris, her father insists that they move to Paris.
 
Camille struggles with feelings of loneliness, her devotion to her sculpture has left her with few social skills. Although she shares a studio with two other female students, Camille knows that unlike her, they will eventually marry and give up sculpting.  We don’t really get to see any of Camille’s relationship with her sister Louise, she’s something of a cipher in the book. Her most complex relationship, in a way, is not with Rodin but with her brother Paul.  Both are artists, Paul longs to be a writer. But while Paul is willing to compromise, taking a job in the diplomatic corps while writing on the side, Camille refuses to even countenance taking on pupils.  Even though the money would go a long way towards paying her bills. While Paul finds solace in religion, Camille’s religion is her sculpture. It's what she holds on to, even in her darkest hours.

But then she meets Auguste Rodin. She tries to fight her undeniable attraction to him but she can't ultimately. She senses immediately that their passion will consume them.  Camille believes that she is just as talented as Rodin, and that she will one day to etch her name in history despite society's belief that women can't be artists. However, her ambition and her need to forge an independent identity soon comes between them. And the dark voices in Camille's head grow louder with each passing day,  threatening her ability to work.

Webb’s writing is flawless.  She gets under Camille’s skin, refusing to shy away from the more negative aspects of her personality, her stubbornness, her jealously and her ego. There were times when I was reading the novel that I wanted to shake Camille. In many ways, Camille was her own worst enemy.  Webb gives the reader a glimpse into constant sexism that female artists faced in the 19th Century, particularly those artists like Camille who refused to limit themselves to scenes of domestic life.  There is a scene late in the book when Rodin and Camille have reunited after a short break when they attend a dinner where they run into one of Rodin’s frenemies who makes it clear that he would love to take Rodin’s place.

Then there is the matter of Rodin’s long-term relationship with Rose Beuret, the mother of his only child.  Despite his love for Camille, he cannot bring himself to break it off with Rose. Camille cannot hide her jealously of Rose. She wants Rodin all to herself.  The book is told through both Camille and Rodin’s point of view which allows the reader to see Camille through someone else’s eyes. She’s particularly good at detailing the struggle that Rodin has between the two women in his life.  Rose, who has been with him since the beginning, and Camille, his passionate muse. Webb also adroitly illustrates the personal toll of being driven by great ambition. Despite Camille’s successes, she’s constantly compared to Rodin, the sensuality of her work which is unheard of in most female artists, costs her commissions. She struggles to maintain her own identity, to not let herself be submerged in Rodin’s.  Despite Rodin’s successes, he still struggles to get his vision across without compromising too much.


Anyone who is interested in la Belle Époque Paris will find much to enjoy in Rodin’s Lover.  I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that the love story doesn't end happily for many reasons. There is not false moment in this novel, a moment that I could have pointed to as out of character for what I know of Camille from my own research. Unlike the movie Camille Claudel, Webb never blames Rodin for Camille's misfortunes. You never get the sense that he's actively using her. In away, they are using each other but not in a negative way.  There are hints in the book that Camille may have inherited her mental instability from her mother. Webb builds Camille's madness slowly, from just little things like her uncontrollable temper and her jealously, eventually escalating to paranoia and the voice inside her head. In the end, this book is heart-breaking in it's portrayal of one of the art history's most fascinating and complex women.

Friday, January 23, 2015

New Books about Marie Antoinette

Anyone who has read this blog over the years knows how I feel about Marie Antoinette.  I've been fascinated with the doomed Queen ever since I discovered that she and I share a birthday.  Over the years, I have amassed a wealth of books about Marie.  One year, I even went to see Sophia Coppola's film Marie Antoinette for our birthday. If there is a movie or a book that has even the slightest connection to Marie Antoinette, I will read it.  This has led me to the mostly wretched film The Affair of the Necklace with Hilary Swank as well as the YA novel Marie Antoinette, Serial Killer which came out almost two years ago.  After two hundred years, you would think that the subject of her life had been exhausted, but you would be wrong! Two new books are coming out about Marie Antoinette next year. And good news, Sony Pictures has bought the rights to Juliet Grey's novel Becoming Marie Antoinette, which will hopefully be coming to a theatre near you in the next few years.  Which brings me to another question: Who would you like to see play a young Marie Antoinette? I have a feeling, if the film gets made, that Lily Collins who plays Lady Rose on Downton Abbey will get the call.

A Day with Marie Antoinette: An Intimate Portrait of Her Life at Versailles - Helene Delalex (Author) and Francis Hammond (Photographer) - June 6, 2015.

The description on Amazon.co.uk - This beautifully illustrated book sheds new light on the personal life of Marie Antoinette and reveals hidden aspects of her Versailles. Marie Antoinette was a mirror of her time. Never before has a queen been so passionately admired and adulated, then hunted, vilified, and defamed. From the young queen playing a shepherdess on stage, unaware of the turmoil in the capital, to France’s "martyr queen," the author demystifies the legend, unveiling the woman behind the queen, and the wife and mother behind the sovereign.By tracing her footsteps through Versailles, discovering her voice through her letters, and encountering little-known works in her private art collection, the reader gains new insight on the tragically brief life of a passionate, sensitive, dramatic, and captivating woman. Organized chronologically, with lavish new photography and a wealth of unpublished material, this is a nuanced portrait of Marie Antoinette and her Versailles.

This book is definitely on my wish list. 

Of course, you can't talk about Marie Antoinette and Versailles without talking about clothing. Another new book is Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of  Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  I have to thank Melanie over at Madame Guillotine for alerting me about this book.  It looks lavish, filled with lots of pictures, more of a coffee table book than a straight history. 

Here is the description over at Amazon.co.uk:

This engrossing book chronicles one of the most exciting, controversial, and extravagant periods in the history of fashion: the reign of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette in 18th-century France. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell offers a carefully researched glimpse into the turbulent era's sophisticated and largely female-dominated fashion industry, which produced courtly finery as well as promoted a thriving secondhand clothing market outside the royal circle. She discusses in depth the exceptionally imaginative and uninhibited styles of the period immediately before the French Revolution, and also explores fashion's surprising influence on the course of the Revolution itself. The absorbing narrative demonstrates fashion's crucial role as a visible and versatile medium for social commentary, and shows the glittering surface of 18th-century high society as well as its seedy underbelly. Fashion Victims presents a compelling anthology of trends, manners, and personalities from the era, accompanied by gorgeous fashion plates, portraits, and photographs of rare surviving garments. Drawing upon documentary evidence, previously unpublished archival sources, and new information about aristocrats, politicians, and celebrities, this book is an unmatched study of French fashion in the late 18th century, providing astonishing insight, a gripping story, and stylish inspiration.

This one comes out in March just in time for to be bought with my tax-refund! 

 Melanie also mentioned one last book about Marie Antoinette entitled La mode a la cour de Marie Antoinette.  This one is entirely in French, but Melanie has said that there are tons of gorgeous photos to look at in the book.  And who knows, it might be that excuse to break out ye olde French dictionary that is lurking somewhere in my apartment. Or to take a French class. I studied French for ten years, starting in third grade through college, so I read it much better than I speak it.  Funny, how reading skills stay but not the speaking! The cover of this book is absolutely gorgeous.  This one came out last October.

So there you have it, 3 new books about Marie Antoinette, to break your wallet!


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Vanessa and Her Sister - A Scandalous Review

Vanessa and Her Sister – Priya Parmar
Print Length: 368 pages
Publisher: Ballantine Books (December 30, 2014)
Acquired through:  Net Galley

My thoughts:  I read Priya Parmar’s first book EXIT THE ACTRESS when it came out in 2011, and was bowled over by her talent.  Yes, I had a few quibbles with her portrayal of Nell Gwynn (I had a hard time believing that she was illiterate and somehow never learned to read during her years as an actress. I found that a little far-fetched), but I thought the book was an excellent peek backstage at what it was like to be an actress during the Restoration.  You could just smell the greasepaint and the unwashed flesh!

When I saw on Net Galley that she had written a new novel about Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf, I immediately requested it.  Most of what I know about the Bloomsbury Group has been gained through watching films like Carrington (Emma Thompson brilliant as always as Dora Carrington and Jonathan Pryce as Lytton Strachey) and The Hours, as well as reading brief biographies of the artists and writers who populated the group.  I find them endlessly fascinating, in the same way that I find the radicals and artists who lived in Greenwich Village at the time fascinating. So this book was definitely going to be on my TBR pile.  I finally downloaded it this past week and just devoured it over the weekend. 

The book opens in 1905, Vanessa and her siblings have just sold their childhood home and moved to Bloomsbury which was the equivalent of moving to Williamsburg before it became hip. Their father has just died, and Virginia has recently recovered from a breakdown that almost shattered the family. The book is told mainly through Vanessa’s journal, interspersed with letters from Virginia to her friend Violet, Lytton Strachey to Leonard Woolf who is in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and letters from Roger Fry to his mother.  This choice makes the book feel very personal and intimate as if the reader found an old box of family mementos in the attic.  It’s the perfect book to read on a rainy day with a hot cup tea beside you as you dip into the lives of Vanessa, and her siblings.

Although one could categorize the Stephen family as upper middle class, they have deep roots in the literary and artistic community.  Their late mother was the niece of Julia Margaret Cameron, their father’s first wife was the daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray.  Their father, Leslie Stephen, was English author, critic and mountaineer! Reading this book reminded me of the time that I went to visit 18 Stafford Terrace which is the home of a Punch cartoonist who is like the great grandfather of Lord Snowden.  I could just see Vanessa and Virginia racing up and down the stairs. 

There is an overwhelming sense of loss in the book, of the family members (their mother and older sister Stella, their father) who have passed on.  Although the book is narrated mainly by Vanessa, there are times when Virginia Stephen threatens to take over the book, just as in real life she threatened to take over her sisters.  Her prickly personality, at times loving, other times needy, her charm and her brilliance come across in the book.  She’s that friend who you love but you need take mini-vacations from if only to save your own sanity.  It would too easy to cut Virginia some slack by pointing out “Well, she’s mentally ill, she doesn’t know what she’s doing.”  Parmar never excuses Virginia’s behavior. By the end of the book, I was #TeamVanessa all the way.  I cheered her for freeing herself from a marriage that was not fulfilling her, with a husband who could so nonchalantly fall under her sister’s spell.  Particularly after he had spent such a long time wooing Vanessa and trying to get her to marry him. I confess I wanted to smack Clive Bell many times over the course of the novel. Talk about misrepresenting who you are! He completely blindsides Vanessa with this actions.  One of my favorite characters in the book was Lytton Strachey, as he was in the film Carrington. What I found amazing, and it's one of the things that I had forgotten, was just how incestuous a group they were. It seems like everyone in the book, at some point or another, slept with Duncan Grant.  He is the one character that I never felt that we got to know in the book.  He sort of danced on the periphery, breaking hearts left and right. 

I never wanted this book to end, as each page led me to the last page, I kept hoping that miraculously the book would continue. Parmar’s writing is so evocative of the period and the emotions of the characters.  Vanessa and Virginia, their friends and family, felt like real, living, breathing people.  Not just characters from a biography or a history book.  I can’t tell you how many times I fell down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia while reading this book because I kept wanting to know more.

If your friends want to try historical fiction, but they don’t know who to read, I would suggest giving them Parmar’s book as an example of the best of what historical fiction has to offer.  I can’t wait to read Parmar’s next book. I just hope we don’t have to wait three years to do so.