I picked this book up because of its cover: a soothing view of the sea from a boat. I bought it for the author – it was about time I’d read some Woolf. I was encouraged by the opening, which had characters that were realistic yet distinct enough to be interesting. It also had irresistible descriptions of London at the turn of the century, arguably the height of its charm.
The honeymoon phase was soon over, though. The part of the book that was set on the sea seemed to drag on and on, much like the journey itself would have. Perhaps that made it more realistic, but for a reader, the static scenery permeated to the narrative itself. It’s true, the characters were compelling enough – moody, pensive and naive Rachel; her somewhat neurotic aunt, Rachel; and of course, the Dalloways and the storm that follows them. The passengers’ interactions, with all their various tensions and desires, prompted absorption for a while, but not long enough.
It was therefore a relief when they finally reached land, despite the Dalloways’ frustrating and anticlimactic departure from the narrative. The strange country they found themselves in was intriguing and beautiful, even if the landscape, especially the mountains, were often vague. The new social context was refreshing, with more people to learn about and observe as they interacted with Rachel and the Ambroses. Still, that too grew tiresome eventually, at least in part because some of the characters were too similar to easily distinguish or understand. The expedition to the wilderness was monotonous and unexciting, save for the blossoming romance between Rachel and Terence. When the group returned, the book increasingly focused on the young couple’s relationship, which was more engrossing than most of the book. At times, Rachel’s indecisiveness and dramatic tendencies were tiresome, but at least they added dimension to a character and a situation that could otherwise have been trite – the young couple in love considering their future together has certainly been written before.
For various reasons, I put the book down at the start of the summer and left it in the UK. When I finally returned home six months later, I was determined to finish it – I’d been reading it on an off for over a year. When I picked it up again, though, I really enjoyed it. Perhaps because I hadn’t had the chance to read in a while, or because I was eager to finish it; no doubt also because much of the book’s most dramatic events happen in the last fifty pages or so. I savored those last few chapters – the couple’s intimacy and tension, the shocking illness and its aftermath. I truly felt that I’d lived with them in South America for months; it was satisfying to see something come out of it, even if it was devastating.
I found Woolf’s writing surprisingly readable – it wasn’t as dense or cryptic as I’d expected it, especially from what I’d heard about To the Lighthouse. But it was definitely slow, sometimes painfully so. She spent pages describing a scene of people or a landscape when she could have used a few lines. I did appreciate the insight into English life at the turn of the century; it felt far closer to Austen’s times than even mid-nineteenth century, let alone the present day. I just wish more of the book had been set in London, for the beautiful setting as well as a more fleshed out social and political context which the book only hinted at.
Overall, I am glad I read it, but also relieved to have finished it. It was a slog, and didn’t always provide the easy escape I was looking for. Still, I would recommend it; although I can’t compare it to her other books, from what I understand, it is perhaps a good place to start with her writing.
My Ratings (out of 10 As):
Plot/Story: AAAAA (5)
Writing: AAAAAAAAA (9)