Review: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

I shouldn't have liked this book. Consider the following:

1. I don't like Virginia Woolf. It's weird, since "modernist" and "feminist" are THE two words that I would have sworn can make me automatically like someone, but there you have it. I'm aware of the qualities of her writing intellectually, I realize they're qualities I usually appreciate in other people, but I can't help it. I get zero pleasure from reading her. And because I know I should like her, this makes me feel inadequate. Virginia Woolf makes me feel like I'll never be mature enough - or smart enough, or sophisticated enough - to get her.

2. I don't like magic realism. (And I would classify Orlando, anachronistically or not, as playing in magic realism.) I like my fictional worlds to have clear rules. I don't particularly like fantasy either, but at least there you know where you stand. Breaking the laws of nature and having a very matter-of-fact tone about it makes me... twitchy and unhappy. I might still like or even love the books (I did go through a Read All The Rushdies phase as a teen), but my enjoyment of them will be inevitably marred to an extent.

And yet I loved Orlando. I loved it because it was like a cavalcade through history and that more than made up for the fact its hero(ine) inexplicably took more than three centuries to reach the age of thirty, while kings, queens and poets flitted in and out of hir life. I loved it because each century had its own atmosphere, and the Victorian and Edwardian periods in particular were so strikingly captured. I loved it because it was clever enough when it played with and gently mocked the conventions of the biography in the first part, but it got almost unbearably clever once the great twist took place and Orlando, so far a handsome and accomplished young man, became a woman. I loved it because it went there. I loved it because it was a sharp critique of gender roles. I loved it for its wit and humor. I loved it for the way said wit and humor didn't seem to completely demolish their targets. This was a satire of so many things, and yet it never left a bad taste behind, which satire sometimes does.

Were there still moments when my old problem with Woolf came back? Yes. There were moments when I felt bored and totally disconnected with this book and wished I were reading something else. But unlike my previous experiences with Virginia Woolf (hi there, The Years, did you know you made me give up reading for a whole year after abandoning you in the middle?), there always came something that made it worth it. Sometimes it was a cutting comment about women's position in the Victorian society. At other times it was some impressive description, like the moment black clouds cover the sky at midnight and we're told that "All was dark; all was doubt; all was confusion. The Eighteenth century was over; the Nineteenth century had begun." But most often it was some patch of pretty writing, like this:
Every single thing, once he tried to dislodge it from its place in his mind, he found thus cumbered with other matter like the lump of glass which, after a year at the bottom of the sea, is grown about with bones and dragon-flies, and coins and the tresses of drowned women.
Orlando is above all a playful book and a book that exudes a love for words and for writing. It seems wrong to dissect it, wrong to label it, especially when one isn't very eloquent to begin with. It is against its spirit. So these impressions are all I have. This is a book to be savored. I enjoyed it much more than I expected and I encourage you to do the same.

Don't forget that we're offering this book in our giveaway. If this review made you curious, you can still enter here for a chance to win Orlando.

This post is part of The Literary Others: An LGBT Reading Event hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader. If you're curious about what other people are doing for this event go here. If you want to see what else we read or will read for this event, keep an eye on our Literary Others tag.


  1. 1. Please don't let not particularly liking Woolf make you feel immature or inadequate. You can't like every author you read.

    2. I'm so glad you enjoyed this one. It's on my wish list (and I've entered to win it here)--it sounds really good.

    1. Well, I'm glad you like this book, because you're VERY likely to win it :)

  2. I like Virginia Woolf, but there are plenty of authors I *should* like that I don't. Everyone has different tastes.

    1. I'm still for something to click when it comes to Woolf. I mean, there are so many things I appreciate on their own in her writing that I'm just surprised the whole doesn't impress me that much :)

  3. I've heard a lot of great stuff about this book and i'm glad you loved it too! I'm going to be checking it out soon.
    I just read and reviewed my last read for the LGBT Reading Event, I hope you liked all the books that you read. :)

    Happy reading!

    Sarika @ The Readdicts