Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Review: Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Do you ever read a book and feel like you're in the midst of an inside joke* that you're not privy to? That is pretty much how I felt like the entire time I was trudging my way through Orlando. I'm going to keep this review brief, mostly because I didn't like it, but didn't despise it nearly enough to write a diatribe about it.
Orlando is (duh) about Orlando, an young aristocrat who is growing up in the English Elizabethan Era (1500s for those of you, like me, who are not in the know). He is hopelessly rich and in the good graces of the Queen, which obviously is never a bad thing. Like all young men, he falls in love and has his heart broken by a Russian princess (you've never been trod upon by Eastern European royalty?). He entertains scholars and poets. He travels to Turkey, becomes a woman, and decides that he no longer needs to age.
Yes, he changes from a young man to a young, unaging woman, without hardly any fuss or explanation whatsoever. He goes into a deep sleep for days and wakes up a she. Woolf doesn't find any need to explain the metamorphosis and Orlando him(or rather, her)self isn't too particularly concerned about it either. He merely accepts that he is now a woman and begins to learn the gender, as if he were taking on a role in a play. She even gets married. How domestic.
Also equally as odd and unexplained is that he, then she, is stuck at about thirty-two years of age, physical appearance-wise. Considering that this novel starts in the sixteenth century and ends in early twentieth, I found this peculiar.
All of this silliness would be so much easier to accept if the novel was more readable. The prose is beautiful, but not even remotely flowing. The narrative will be moving along at a brisk pace and out of the blue Woolf brings the flow screeching to a halt by spending several pages describing some bit of minutia. Also, some sentences are so long and unwieldy that it is extremely difficult to parse out the individual phrases to make sense of it all. She definitely knows how to write, though, and makes sure the reader knows it. In the instances that it does flow, Woolf is virtually unmatched in vocabulary and elegance. Unfortunately these instances are few and far between.
Overall, I didn't care for this book one bit. In my opinion, it is the exact work of self-indulgence that steers readers away from many of the well-known "difficult" books. Density is not necessarily a bad thing if the reader is rewarded for making it through the words. I, personally, found no satisfaction from this novel and finished it only so I could start a different one.
I'm going to give it two and a half stars out of five. Only those few and far between examples of masterful writing and the shallow, brief gender-bending analysis of societal roles and behaviors of men and women manage to salvage even that rating. I can't in good conscience recommend this, but if you're in the mood, go right ahead. I won't stop you.
*Yes, I know it really is an inside joke. For those of you who care, it is a semi-biographical (and I use semi in the loosest terms humanly possible) piece on Woolf's female love, Vita Sackville-West. No, she did not change from a man to a woman and no she did not live to be over three hundred years old.
I am actually behind on reviews. I finished The Reader on the bus to Chicago last Friday, so I owe you all a review for that. Sneak peek: it was much better than Orlando. Be back soon!