Adeline by Norah Vincent

adeline

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (April 7, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • $ 23.00

 

The degree of difficulty involved in writing Adeline must have been great. I can’t imagine how long Vincent spent reading bios about Woolf, her letters and diaries. I’m deeply impressed by the breadth of scholarship involved. In her notes, she cites her sources, which are extensive, if not complete. Then again, a complete bibliography of books about Woolf is a life’s worth of reading, much less time spent interpreting all the facts, forming them into a work of fiction. Or “faction,” maybe. Has anyone used that term to refer to fiction disguised as fact? Let’s say they haven’t and that I’m breaking new ground. No one else will care but I like the thought I’ve CREATED SOMETHING, unlikely as it is.

[I won’t tell if you won’t. And I’m pretty sure you don’t care either way.]

What Vincent has done in Adeline (The title is Virginia Woolf’s actual first name. She went by her middle name.) is take Woolf’s life, novel by novel, breaking it into acts as if in a play. Starting in 1925 with her inspiration for To the Lighthouse, triggered by time spent soaking in the bath (I really don’t know if this is accurate), the author expands the story to include what was going on in Woolf’s life, and within her circle of friends, at the time she was writing each book. Vincent pays much attention to Virginia’s relationship with her husband, Leonard Woolf, using his point of view to explore the mental illness she suffered – presumed to have been bipolar disorder or manic depression. In Virginia’s shoes I believe Leonard’s actions would have felt annoying. They show how much he cares but his occasional coddling, as depicted in this novel, would have driven me absolutely bonkers. Was he this protective? I never got the impression he was so overbearing. And was he so overly-dramatic? He dealt with this for a very long time. It’s not as if any of this was new to him. After a while, even the most unusual of situations will become “normal.”

He was always watchful, always on the lookout for her inevitable tumbles into depression. Knowing the signs her extreme downturns were returning, he needed to be certain she got what was considered appropriate care. Of course, what was considered appropriate then is far from modern-day treatment, using a combination of drugs to control the chemical imbalances in the brain. Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds and anti-psychotics, regulated by a psychiatrist, are often used in a “cocktail” to keep the mood – and racing mind – on an even keel. Drugs, paired with talk therapy, can go a long way toward controlling bipolar disorder. For Woolf, taking away all stimulants was her “rest cure.” Because mania brought on her obsessive writing, she was kept away from it. Likewise, reading, very closely associated, needless to say. It must have been a living hell for her. No wonder she dreaded the inevitability of  it.

Bipolar disorder is thought to be a dormant condition in many, brought out by a triggering event. So, not everyone predisposed toward bipolar will exhibit symptoms. There are also two different forms: Bipolar I and Bipolar II. Not being a psychiatrist, going by what I know to be true, I think it’s more probably the latter that afflicted Virginia Woolf. Bipolar I is the almost solely depressive form. Manic stages are present but greatly muted, in comparison to Bipolar II. Mostly, Bipolar I is a deep funk, often tending toward suicidal impulse. Bipolar II, however, is the one most people identify as the “true” form, usually unaware it’s not the only possibility. People with this condition exhibit incredible highs, during which they are manically productive and feel indestructible, then fall very far into depression, often needing to be hospitalized to keep them from harming themselves.

In Woolf’s case, we can fairly safely presume the event which released her bipolar was the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her half brother, George Duckworth.  I wanted to slam the book down when Vincent wrote dialogue between Virginia and Leonard, in which Virginia so casually mentions the abuse. The way the two referred to it was wooden and unnatural, even taking into account Leonard was well aware of her past. It was a lazy shortcut device used to inform the reader of the horrors Virginia underwent.Trying to recall how Woolf referred to the events with Duckworth, I don’t remember her speaking of it casually. It’s a struggle to recall her talking about it at all, even in her diaries, and letters to her beloved sister Vanessa, much less while she’s watching Leonard weeding the garden. After that section I read with a very guarded disposition, no longer completely trusting the author. For the record, this wasn’t all that far into the book.

Beyond that, I have issues with Vincent’s stylistic choices, her tendency to stay too much within Virginia’s head. There’s too much potential for misinterpretation, for creating thoughts she never had, leading the reader to believe she was a far different person than she was in reality. I’ll admit, I tend to feel protective of Woolf, sensitive to how she’s portrayed. Already feeling distrustful certainly didn’t help.

It’s also an annoyance that the language used is so formal, the prose over-written. It would have been better pared down to minimalism, in my opinion. It would have made for a much better book without prose verging on, sometimes crossing into,”purple” territory. Never mind the high intellects found in the real-life players of this drama; it would have been perfectly excusable to skirt that, opting for s more simple style, focusing on the story and not so much overly flamboyant conversations. It needs less blow by blow, more showing and less telling. As written, it was difficult keeping focus. Every few paragraphs something would sound “off” to me, reminding me I’m reading a book and not immersed in the lives of the Bloomsbury Group. This is the opposite of what you want to find in a novel, any disconnection from what’s happening in the book. Novels should be as seamless as possible. It’s crucial the reader lose herself in the story, not wander off to think about shopping lists or what’s for dinner. Fiction is an alternate reality, with emphasis on the real. Even in the case of fantasy and science fiction, a story  needs to feel real, as in possible. If I’m reading a work of horror, I need to feel frightened. If it’s a dystopia, I should feel unnerved and worried, uncomfortable. I never lost myself in Adeline.

There may be a narrow readership for Adeline: those with a casual curiosity about Woolf who aren’t interested in more than a surface grasp of her life, as well as an introduction to the major figures in her peer group. What’s less fortunate is these readers may feel as though they’re doing a bit of wading to get to the meat of it, that the characters have personalities so big and overbearing it’s overwhelming. Using such a loud style does no favors to readers unfamiliar with Virginia Woolf. Rather, it’s off-putting.

There are so many nonfiction books out there about Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, if a reader wants to get a sketch of her life. Hermione Lee’s is definitive but too long for the casual reader. Instead, Nigel Nicholson’s short Penguin Lives edition, titled simply Virginia Woolf, would be my recommendation. Nigel Nicholson was the son of Virginia’s one-time lesbian lover, Vita Sackville-West and uses:

 

” … family archives and first-hand experience for his brisk, dutiful biography. For the young Nicolson, Woolf first appeared as a lively and amusing visitor. Not yet famous, to Nicolson she was like “a favourite aunt who brightened our simple lives with unexpected questions.”

– Publishers Weekly

 

woolfnicholson

 

Overall, the effort gets points for the idea but loses most of its value in the areas of stylistic choice and execution, which, well doesn’t leave it with much. Try as I did, I could not abide Adeline. Perhaps I’m too predisposed to finding fiction based on the life of Woolf to be irritating (it took two times for me to grow to love Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, not that I’m comparing the magnitude of two books). I cannot recommend the book.

 

[Free Review Copy: Amazon Vine program]

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