Vir­ginia Woolf in Man­hat­tan

Mag­gie Gee

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews Adult Fiction - LETI­TIA MONT­GOMERY-RODGERS

Fen­tum Press (MARCH) Soft­cover $15.95 (480pp) 978-1-909572-10-2

An­gela Lamb is a best­selling nov­el­ist who moon­lights as a Vir­ginia Woolf scholar. She’s prep­ping her key­note ad­dress for a Woolf con­fer­ence when the un­think­able hap­pens, and more than pa­pers emerge from the Berg Col­lec­tion’s stacks. Stones still in her pock­ets, Vir­ginia Woolf is re­called, too, and the con­ceit of a per­son’s work tak­ing over their life is given breath in Mag­gie Gee’s Vir­ginia Woolf in Man­hat­tan.

Span­ning New York, Lon­don, and Is­tan­bul, the story shifts be­tween Vir­ginia, An­gela, and An­gela’s teenage daugh­ter, Gerda. Con­cerned with the modern con­di­tion, re­la­tion­ships, and hu­man con­nec­tion, the novel is cap­ti­vated by the con­flict be­tween peo­ple’s in­te­rior lives and their abil­ity to ex­press that in­te­ri­or­ity to oth­ers.

An­gela is not par­tic­u­larly lik­able, with­out youth or in­ex­pe­ri­ence to ex­cuse her in­se­cu­rity and self-ab­sorp­tion. Vir­ginia proves priv­i­leged and en­ti­tled too, but her wounded cu­rios­ity makes even her flaws sur­pris­ingly en­dear­ing. Gerda is poised some­where in be­tween, al­ter­nately inse­cure and brave, ter­ri­ble and vul­ner­a­ble. Their re­spec­tive an­tag­o­nisms and sim­i­lar­i­ties de­fine both who they are and the blind spots in their self-con­cepts.

While in­ter­ested in the self, em­bod­i­ment, and the free­dom that comes from be­ing fully known, the novel strug­gles to cre­ate this ex­pan­sive­ness. Its ad­her­ence to bi­nary con­cepts of sex­u­al­ity and gen­der, and its sac­cha­rine nos­tal­gia, jan­gle against mes­sages of in­clu­sive, af­firm­ing per­son­hood. In light of Woolf’s doc­u­mented queer­ness, bi­sex­u­al­ity is frus­trat­ingly ef­faced. Her male part­ners are given over­ween­ing weight, and her sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion is por­trayed as prox­i­mate to trans­gen­der­ness.

As Vir­ginia ru­mi­nates, “Maybe the past can never write the present.” While progress isn’t lin­ear, the present’s abil­ity to see—much less to com­ment on—it­self in this novel is fraught, as An­gela, Vir­ginia, and Gerda’s tri­umvi­rate ex­em­pli­fies in its on­go­ing at­tempt to un­pack and de­fine a modern wo­man­hood that’s rooted in that past.

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