My second book from Virginia Woolf and my 52nd from Time's list of 'All-Time 100 Novels' is now complete, with 1925's Mrs. Dalloway. I suppose it could be said that it went a little better than To the Lighthouse, Woolf's other book on the list, which I read in 2010. By this I mean it took less time, as I didn't really enjoy it any more.
Mrs. Dalloway is about...well it isn't really about anything, but it follows Mrs. Dalloway and her friends on the day she is hosting a party. It's sort of like a season of '24', following each character throughout the day; that is if '24' was about what Jack Bauer was thinking about all day before his daughter's birthday party. Sadly, there aren't any terrorists, explosions, split-screens or for that matter, any action in Mrs. Dalloway.
Instead of detailing anything that happens, or sharing a lot of interaction between the different characters, Mrs. Dalloway tells us what each person is thinking. Several different streams of consciousness. We learn about each person's past and their relationship to the others through their thoughts that day. They reminisce, to themselves, about days gone by, decisions they regret, their hopes for the future and their hopes from the past. Big Ben continues to update us on the time of day throughout the book, until the big party finally begins. There, they continue to think about different things, with very little dialogue or description sprinkled in between.
To make matters worse, the book jumps from person to person, without warning. There would be times I would have to retrace a couple of paragraphs to establish when I started reading Clarissa's thoughts instead of Sally's. Not that it really mattered, by the end of the book I found it nearly impossible to distinguish one character from the next.
I realize this is how a book by Virginia Woolf is supposed to read, but that doesn't mean I have to enjoy it. The only thing more tedious than reading about nothing happening, is reading about people thinking about nothing happening. The book seemed to ramble on and on, as Mrs. Dalloway et al. thought about what clothes they were going to wear that night, or as they wondered what so-and-so meant when they said...whatever. While many seem to feel a connection with Virginia Woolf's writing, I did not. I was unable to relate to the characters, nor did I find them very interesting.
If one is able to make a connection with the characters, this book probably offers a very realistic and emotional journey through these people's lives. Somebody once told me they have never read a book that felt so much as if the author had been inside their head. In fact, I've been told this more than once, and as a result I understand why this book found its way onto this list. But as one who failed to make that connection, I only wanted to offer Virginia Woolf the same advice Neal Page had for Del Griffith in in "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles":
For me, this book was only an exercise in completion, not an enjoyable reading experience. Because there wasn't any real plot, I often found it difficult to focus on the book. More times than I care to count, I found myself only glazing over the words, without actually absorbing them. This made the book even more tedious as I was forced to go back and re-read so many pages. When it was finished, my feeling was not satisfaction, it was relief.
Perhaps one day I'll look back and think myself better off for having read two Virginia Woolf novels, but for now I'll just consider myself thankful for having gotten them over with, and take joy in the fact that I most likely will never read them again.
Notes: There are nine authors with two books on this list, and Virginia Woolf is the first that I've read both of them. I admit the reason was to get them over with...
Number 53 is going to be The Recognitions by William Gaddis; I think. This is a book that took me by surprise when I picked it up from the library, as it is 956 pages. I thought I had already accounted for all the ~1000 pagers, so this might mess up my schedule a little. But it has to be read at some point, so why not today?