Reviews and reactions

Photo Brian Golden

‘In short, disconnected scenes of exquisite description and nuanced emotion, Susan Sellers invites us to assemble the pieces into a picture not only of the Bloomsbury circle, but of the exigencies of creative work as outlet, devotion, and anchor. A fascinating, compelling novel written with authority and tenderness.’

Susan Vreeland, author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

‘Reading Vanessa and Virginia is like swimming across the seabed of the minds of sisters Woolf and Bell – everywhere there are fragments of paintings and scenes from novels and lyrical phrases scattered like sunken treasure. It is a novel both exquisite and haunting. A triumph of the imagination.’

Rebecca Stott, author of Ghostwalk.

“In heartbreaking prose that reflects the bright and shifting geometries of her life as a painter…. Susan Sellers peers back through the alleys of the past and paints an exquisite portrait of two sisters who shared similar dreams.

‘The emotional territory in this novel is vast: love and anger, grief and delight, shame and pride, even the petty jealousies are framed around these two women, co-conspirators in both life and in art. The prose is passionate and colorful, filled with artistic impressions. Sellers often visualizes the scenes of Vanessa and Virginia’s early and later life as if it were a painting, the colors dark – black, gray, russet, “with flashes of crimson from the fire.” ‘

‘Deftly, apparently effortlessly, Susan Sellers’s novel of love, art, and sexual jealousy gives us convincing and intimate access to the relationship between two remarkable sisters. At once pellucid and sophisticated, Vanessa and Virginia is quite simply a pleasure to read.’

Robert Crawford, author of Full Volume

‘Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury obsessives  (– guilty! –) will be drawn to Vanessa & Virginia like moths to the flame…. Sellers rather daringly tells the story from Vanessa’s point of view, lending poignancy and empathy to a figure who has often seemed remote…. a tasty sliver of Bloomsbury pie.’ — Jocelyn McClurg

Susan Sellers’ writing style and descriptions are divine – from the beginning of the story I was hooked and I had entered the world of the characters completely. I find this an amazing skill that some writers have – to make me care about what is happening within the story – to care about the outcome. I thought it was particularly clever in this situation when the story and the lives of the characters are so well known to many.

I could open any page of this novel and quote a beautiful, lyrical passage – I found the way the author paralleled her writing style with the creative pursuits of Vanessa and Virginia wonderful’

BookBath, for the full review click here

‘profoundly insightful… Vanessa emerges as such a vibrant, brave, complex and living woman…. the love/hate relationship between the two sisters, the strange exchange of places between them, the tenacity of their attachment to parents, brother, the passion of the affairs are convey so vividly. An extraordinary coup.’

Nicole Ward Jouve, author of Colette.

‘An Instant Classic.’ ‘Sellers’s impressionistic prose evokes the near-magical artistic world of… two innovative women…. She highlights the interplay of their creative thinking and ways in which they inspired each other. Of To the Lighthouse, Vanessa says, “I could only marvel at your gift . . . For once, what you had accomplished was so momentous it advanced us both.” The author also captures the color and nuance of Vanessa’s vision: “I paint on a wooden panel, large enough for a reclining nude,” Vanessa says. “I mix gray and white to my pink, add traces of violet and gold. I want the flesh to look newly exposed, as if a sea creature has been peeled of its shell.” Equally vivid are the descriptions of the salons Vanessa held in Bloomsbury for her siblings and celebrated friends, events that became “so notorious, so much discussed, so revered in some quarters and satirized in others.” Vanessa & Virginia is a thorough portrait of the complicated dance of sisters—women who are alike and unlike, connected and apart, loving yet still, at times, painfully at odds.’

More Magazine

‘Sellers will help rescue Woolf from the dour portrait Nicole Kidman gave her in the film version of Cunningham’s book (The Hours). As for Bell, Sellers beautifully imagines what it must have meant to be a gifted artist yoked to a sister of dangerous, provocative genius.’

Karen R. Long, Plain Dealer Book Editor. click here for the full review

’‘Vanessa and Virginia is a beautifully written novel. Vanessa’s story is formed, as one might expect of an artist-narrator, from painterly prose… Sellers achieves a believable psychological reality in the figure of Vanessa, who, as narrator, leads the reader through a series of interconnected pictures, much as the viewer wanders the corridors of an art gallery pausing from canvas to canvas…Vanessa’s memory moves across years and through moments with sensitivity and grace, so that the reader is seamlessly transported from place to place, event to event, feeling to feeling. It is a difficult structure, but Sellers successfully achieves unity in its execution…

As a Woolf scholar [Sellers] is meticulous in her attention to facts and details, but through Vanessa’s voice she reminds the reader that ‘art is not life’… Sellers does not succumb to sycophancy as both sisters’ foibles and flaws lie side by side with their genius. Her even-handed approach to their strengths and weaknesses creates a believable reality which the reader (Bloomsbury expert or not) can fully appreciate. Sellers’ command of her material, her ability to create Post-impressionist pictures with words and her mastery of the difficult pastiche form, means that her work stands as a literary success in its own right, neither overpowered nor overshadowed by the artistic achievements of her subjects.’

Elizabeth Wright, in The Virginia Woolf Bulletin.

‘I was hugely impressed by this accomplished first novel. It traces the complex artistic and emotional interweaving of the lives of sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. The story, told from Vanessa’s perspective, is passionate, intimate and entirely lacking pretension. The ending comes, as we know it must, with Virginia’s suicide. And yet Susan Sellers has managed to deliver the expected and for it to still shock and upset us. This is a truly great book and I hope to see more from this talented writer.’

Matthew Perren, I-On Edinburgh.

to read the full review, see I-On Edinburgh review or I-On Glasgow review

‘This superb short novel by Susan Sellers on the eternal bond which tied  artist Vanessa Bell to her even more famous sibling, the author Virginia Woolf, will appeal to anyone who has a sister (or two) sharing a familial creative streak. … Vanessa and Virginia is one of the few recent reads I haven’t wanted to end.’

Frances Rivetti

to read the full review, see frances rivetti

‘reads like a condensed version of the memoir Bell never wrote…. a compelling novel’, Evelyn Chan, Women: A Cultural Review, (volume 21)

‘A compelling read…. Once I picked it up, I didn’t want to put it down…. Susan Sellers does a brilliant job of showing a different side of Virginia than I am used to viewing and of bringing Vanessa clearly to life. I highly recommend this novel.’

Paula Maggio, Visual Bookshelf

‘Vanessa and Virginia is fictional, but based on real people and events – the childhood of Vanessa and Virginia Stephen, later to be artist Vanessa Bell and novelist Virginia Woolf, and their subsequent lives up to the death of Virginia. It is from the perspective of Vanessa, and addressed to Virginia (though without expecting response). Sellers’ style is not an imitation of Woolf’s, but it has deep similarities – the same beautiful lyricism, use of abstract images, delving into human emotions with an intelligence and compassion which never stumbles into the saccharine… I was wrapped in the beauty of the language and never wanted to leave. [Sellers has written] a beautiful novel which does justice to Bell’s perspective as a very talented painter, overshadowed by a very talented novelist sister, in an unusual group and unusual time. I don’t know where Sellers can go after this, but I look forward to finding out.’

Simon Thomas. For the rest of this review, click on: ‘stuck-in-a-book’ review

‘…not only have I learned something about Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, but it is one of those novels that has something profound to say about human nature.’

Lisa Glass. For the rest of this review, click on: vulpes libris review

‘Vanessa and Virginia, as well as being both subtle and beautifully written, has lots of narrative drive. The descriptions of Vanessa’s paintings, the way they reflect and interact with her complex relationships, are particularly effective.’

Sarah Annes Brown, in Ariachne’s Broken Woof. For the rest of this review, click on Sarah Brown’s review of Vanessa and Virginia

‘Superb, really exceptional!’ Sally Cline, author of Zelda Fitzgerald.

beautifully written – vivid yet economical’ Deborah Arnander, translator

‘a very remarkable achievement – seamless play between two worlds, fact and fiction’

Andrew McNeillie, editor of Virginia Woolf’s diaries and essays.

‘Narrated from Bell’s point of view, Vanessa and Virginia is particularly interesting in the way it examines how the sisters came to art as a means of defining their own personalities’ Lesley MacDowell and Colin Waters, in The Scottish Review of Books

‘rich and economic – packed with concentrated language which I wanted to say out loud for the pleasure of it!’ Alesha Racine, poet

‘Sellers’s elegant first novel examines a relationship between sisters in which love and jealousy are constants; a relationship in which relatives, friends, and lovers are sources of support, inspiration, joy, betrayal, and ultimately devastating sorrow. The amazing aspect of this novel is its painterly quality. As Vanessa recalls her life, layer upon layer of memory is applied to create a portrait of color and shadow, a process that is mirrored in the narrator’s descriptions of her methods of painting….Highly recommended.’

Library Journal

‘satisfying and compelling…. It gave me food for thought… more than a month later, I find I’m still swishing it around, enjoying the flavor.’

Alice Lowe, Blogging Woolf

‘incredibly evocative, particularly the childhood section’ Anna Snaith, author of Virginia Woolf: public and private negociations.

‘it’s a book you read and re-read and read again for the sensual pleasure that carries you through as fast as the child [Virginia] skipping off to look up the virgin queen in her father’s library’

Angela Morgan Cutler, author of Auschwitz.

‘A delectable little book…. The story includes everything one
ever imagined that happened in the intimate lives of the sisters and their
astounding circle, which burst upon late Victorian England and shattered
both the artistic and cultural boundaries of the times….The fictional world the author
has recreated of the sisters striving to perfect their respective art
forms while trying to keep the reality of children and war and illness at
bay is full of color and intellectual promise and laced with despair and
untimely deaths…. the narrative’s a genuine treat for Bloomsbury fans and
those at least vaguely familiar with the milieu.’

Publisher’s Weekly

‘I was impressd by the beauty of the language, by the compression, by the way that the technique, like Cather’s “touch and pass on”, creates such a resonant text for readers – even for readers who have themselves read a great deal of Woolf’.

Melba Cuddy-Keane, author of Virginia Woolf: The Intellectual and the Public Sphere.

‘boldly sustained in its central narrative device, not to mention the marvellous “painterly” detail’

Christine Crow, author of Miss X or the Wolf Woman.

‘Written from the perspective of Vanessa Bell to her sister Virginia Woolf, this novel plumbs therelationships between the women, their family, and their bohemian Bloomsbury set. Vanessa writes directly to Virginia, confessing early on to a fear of where her sister’s cleverness will lead … in this beautifully written exploration of tortured talent, sibling conflicts, domestic discord, disappointed love affairs, and emotional despair.’

Vanessa Bush, Booklist

‘a simple and yet magical tribute to a writer’s life.’
Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times.

‘undeniably rich material for a novel…. Sellers knows her subject inside out….
Sellers makes an interesting but challenging choice in designating the painter,
not the writer, to tell this story. … Vanessa views her tale through what she
calls ‘the kaleidoscope of memory’. The aim is to capture in prose the
fracturing effects of Cubism and Impressionism, mirroring the sisters’ artistic
styles…. Sellers captures the sisters’ seesaw dynamic as they vacillate between
protecting and hurting each other, depending on who is up and who is down.
For all their competition, each picturing the other as more content and
successful, they are as intimately connected as twins.
Through it all, work is their
refuge – from their lives and themselves.

Heller McAlpin, Christian Science Monitor.

‘a beautiful rendition of the strangely contradictory relationship of siblings…. Sellers has a talent for rendering both the tender and the horrific parts of the sisters’ lives’.

Katie Cappello, California Literary Review.

‘highly nuanced and readable’, The Cambridge Student.

‘one needs no special knowledge to enjoy this fine novel’, Jeanne Greene, Historical Novels Review.

‘I picked it up with trepidation, mainly because I know very little about Woolf and even less about Bell. I was frightened that I wouldn’t get it, that all the gaps in my knowledge would leave me at a disadvantage, but instead I found myself racing through this book, completely immersed in the story and not really wanting it to end.’ Reading Matters

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