When I first decided to pick up To the Lighthouse, I admit that Virginia Woolf and I weren’t on the best of terms. Yes, everyone had been telling me that I couldn’t be a Serious Novelist until I had read it, and yes, word on the street was that it was her most successful book, but the last Woolf novel I had read was Jacob’s Room, a near-incomprehensible failure (in my humble opinion) and a big, fat, stream-of-consciousness F-YOU to her reader. I don’t mind working to read a good book, but I admit I’m far more interested in character-driven novels than idea-driven novels, and Woolf’s cerebral voice has put me on edge for years. Most of the time I just want to shake the characters in her books and tell them, “Talk more about your deep, empathy-inspiring feelings, dammit!”
However. Despite my reservations going into it, I loved To the Lighthouse—both for nerdy structural reasons and for the vulnerability and nostalgia (in a good way) of its prose. I don’t want to become one of those reviewers that ends up talking more about Woolf’s personal life than her writing, (SPOILER ALERT: SHE DROWNS HERSELF IN A RIVER OMG MAYBE SCHIZOPHRENIC WTF!!!!!!!!!! #TRAGEDY) but TTL is the most autobiographic of Woolf’s novels and also the most emotionally revealing. Coincidence? I think not. In her diary she wrote, “I used to think of [my father] and mother daily; but writing The Lighthouse, laid them in my mind.” The characters tap into a deeper well in TTL; Woolf reveals not only the workings of the mind but also the broken chambers of the heart.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. My main tip o’the hat should be for Woolf’s use of time and the overall structure of the book. Written in three parts, TTL is shaped like two funnels stuck together: thick, full sections over a concentrated period of time (one day) bookend the novel, and the middle section is very short, spare, and detached while spanning a ten-year period. It’s kind of like those “Where Are They Now?” celebrity programs, except a bajillion times more poetic. The reader glimpses the Ramsay family and their houseguests at the family’s house in the Hebrides on one summer day; and then, ten years later, the reader returns with the Ramsays et al to that house and observes how both the place and the people have changed. Wordsworth was all about Spots of Time, and Woolf is all about Moments of Being: how one day is not just part of a life but in fact encapsulates the entire life. For Woolf, life is not a linear series of events but rather a few essential moments that we forever carry with us. Form and content merge beautifully here, and the middle section of TTL has earned a spot on the Best Shit Ever Written list, and rightfully so.
The other big plus about TTL is that unlike some of her later work (The Waves comes to mind—that book is my bane), there is a narrative here that propels the reader forward. One can expect beautiful prose and a good story—a rare treat! Yes, it takes some time to get used to Woolf’s writing style—and you can’t tear through the pages at the rate you read, say, a Franzen or Eugenides novel—but in this case, I think the effort put into reading is well worth it. I spent at least a week fantasizing about walking along the waves and painting beautiful canvases à la Lily Briscoe, and the descriptions of the lovely Mrs. Ramsay were enough to make me start using my anti-wrinkle cream again.
Check out my Pinterest board for more Lighthouse-inspired goodies.
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