The Waves by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars
I am not typically drawn to experimental novels. In the book group we belonged to before we had children, I remember reading John Fowles' The Magus and Vladimir Nobokov's Pale Fire and becoming frustrated with both of those books (for different reasons).
In my relatively new book group, we decided that each member would nominate three or four books and we would vote on one book for each member. The Waves was our book for March, and even though it was difficult to get through, we agreed that we would not have tried otherwise. That's the great thing about book groups--it gets you out of your comfort zone. I do not regret reading it, and it will be a book I will remember for a long time.
The Waves, Virginia Woolf's most experimental novel, is a series of soliloquoys spoken by a group of friends, individually. These people are supposedly friends, but they do not seem to have much of a connection to one another. Apparently these characters represent various personalities in Virginia Woolf's life...T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forester, Lytton Strachey, etc. It's been alternately described as following six characters from childhood to adulthood or taking place all within one day, or being several parts of one consciousness. In simple terms, it's difficult to ascertain exactly what's going on for much of the time. There is very little plot. And the characters talk about each other, but do very little interaction with each other.
The language is masterful, yes, but not in a way that draws me in enough to put up with the lack of plot or connection between the characters. I found myself scanning through so much of the book that I can't in good conscience give it more than two stars. I think if I had read it in college, and had been listening to a professor lecture on the novel's merits, I would have appreciated it more. However, at age 46, I found myself dreaming of what else I could be reading that would be more worthwhile.
It didn't help that halfway through the book, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami hit. I found myself wondering why I should care about the privileged, narcissistic perspectives of this book while people were suffering on the other side of the world.
Even though none of us loved The Waves, it made for an interesting discussion at book group. We found it interesting that although Virginia Woolf wrote some great feminist manifestos, her female characters in this book were the weakest. The males took over the book--perhaps a message in itself.
I find it fascinating that on amazon.com and goodreads.com, the vast majority of readers rate this book as five stars. (In Goodreads, 43% of readers give it 5 stars, and only 2% give it 1 star.) Many people comment that they've reread this book several times. That makes me feel completely inadequate. Maybe I've just become too old and particular to appreciate this type of book. Or maybe I would appreciate it more at another stage of my life. I found myself looking forward to moving onto a book that is more gripping.