The Short Version: The Ramsay Family and their guests are summering on the Isle of Skye in Scotland in 1910. Over the course of an ordinary day, rather ordinary things happen – but time swiftly passes and, ten years later, so very much has changed (while yet so much remains so similar).
The Review: There is a certain amount of work that goes into reading Virginia Woolf. I noticed it, to some extent, with Mrs. Dalloway but To the Lighthouse is a more ambitious work and one that requires even more of the reader – but not in a painful way. The problem, really, with reading Woolf in the modern era (especially in a city like New York) is that you can never quite fall into it all the way. I found, quite often, that I would be fully immersed just in time for my stop on the train. Life, it seems, has a way of… well, getting in the way.
But that feels rather Woolfian too, doesn’t it? For here, Woolf is taking the issues that she dealt with in Mrs. Dalloway (the passage of time, memory, sadness, love) and letting life get even more in the way: these characters are pursuing grand thoughts while having to deal with the mundanity of everyday life. Even if they don’t consciously realize that they’re pursuing these great thoughts, these great thoughts come to them and pass through them and are (at the very least) behind everything that they think about that might seem trivial.
I don’t just mean that life gets in the way in the sense of chores and dinner and things, though – I also mean that life (and by extension death) itself gets in the way. Mrs. Ramsay’s presence and (let’s call it) after-presence in the two halves of the novel is a great example: she touches everything and everyone in the narrative, even after she’s gone. Her absence is as much a presence as her presence was. It is impossible to think about these other things when the most incomprehensible thing (existence) looms up behind them.
But for all its ambitions, the novel is strikingly similar to Mrs. Dalloway. Even Mrs. Ramsay is a Clarissa-esque figure in the way that everyone seems to orbit around her to some extent. It is only in the small intermediary chapter, fittingly titled “Time Passes”, that we get a sense of Woolf really playing with what a novel can do: we see time pass without an explicit mention of time passing. We’re not told that it’s ten years, not told when certain events occur in that decade – but instead, we experience it as a singular thing. It is, to get perhaps a little too nerdy, rather how I imagine Time Lords might see such a small span of time – or how any other sufficiently advanced dimensional beings might experience it. Andrew’s death in the war and Mrs. Ramsay’s death could’ve happened in the same year, could’ve happened years apart. The only true clocking of a linear progression is the decay of the house… but the decay of the house is reversed when the serving folk arrive to spruce it up for the family’s return. These ten years matter so much and yet so little – and Woolf is able to capture this without addressing it directly but instead playing to something more fundamental, more underlying, about how humans emotionally percieve time. It is masterful, perhaps all the more masterful for its brevity.
And yet, I can’t say that I found this book as emotionally arresting as I did Mrs. Dalloway. I know, I know, I shouldn’t compare – but that book captured me in my heart of hearts and while I felt my pulse quicken and my soul call out to this book, it did not get me where I bleed. Perhaps that will change as I get older or perhaps I, like Lev Grossman, will never find another Woolf novel as impactful as Mrs. Dalloway. One thing is for sure: I’m excited to find out. I had such trepidation coming into this novel, such a sense of… well, I guess fear that I wouldn’t like it or I would struggle with it. But instead, I found it as beautiful as life itself (even if it wasn’t quite as beautiful as the first Woolf this year).
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. On a technical level, you can see Woolf progressing as a writer and an intellectual and it is amazing – I can only imagine where she goes next. But while the book is more ambitious than Mrs. Dalloway, I think it also lacks a bit of that novel’s emotional resonance. Perhaps because it is attempting to address larger issues, be more formally inventive, etc. I don’t know – and perhaps my opinions will change, too, as time goes on. They certainly did with Mrs. Dalloway. Perhaps the real lesson here is that time does, inexorably, move forward and change us – presences and absences alike. We’ll see, I suppose.