15. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Year Published: 1927
Pages: 200
First Sentence: ‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine to-morrow,’ said Mrs Ramsay.
Rating: 2/3 (meh)


When I first started this project, way back in the mists of time, my gimmick was that as someone with a technical background and no literary sacred cows, I'd be able to review the books on The List honestly. I now find myself, many years and books later, having to express an opinion about Virginia Woolf for the first time and I am struggling.

The last book on The List written by a woman, prior to To the Lighthouse, was The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, but before that was Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence at #58. After such a long drought of women writers, and considering how poorly I've reviewed some of the other List books by women, and considering the author, I really wanted to love To the Lighthouse.

And I'm afraid I have to admit that I didn't.

To the Lighthouse is the amorphous tale of the Ramsay family and some of their hangers on, who are at a vacation home in some part of England. Mr Ramsay is a philosopher of some kind and kind of an ass. Mrs Ramsay is his domestic goddess of a wife, mother of many children, gardener, reader of stories. The book flits between a multitude of characters' perspectives and interior monologues. Nothing exactly happens. During the very best section, "Time Passes," well, time passes, and it passes in a way that forces the reader to consider their relationships, their home places, and their mortality.

This is my first time reading Woolf and I'm as impressed and awed as I hoped I'd be by her insight into her characters and their ambivalent experiences in the world. There are so many emotions crammed into this short book.

But here's the thing, and maybe it's a me problem and not a Woolf problem, but I found myself not really caring at all about most of it. I'm a reader who needs at least the semblance of a plot. Being dropped into the midst of this family in medias res was one thing, but then being uprooted and left to continue caring was... difficult when there was no sense of rising action. I get it: time passed, what was once can never be again. I care about that sentiment more now than ever, but I was bored by large chunks of this book.

I guess I have a sacred cow or two after all because I hate to find myself saying this about Virginia Woolf's only book to make it onto The List. I do want to try out more of her work, because her level of human insight is very impressive.

The books I don't care that much about either way are always the hardest ones to review. This is close to being worth a read for the shortest part of it ("Time Passes," like I said), except that I already reprimanded Henry Miller for expressing the sentiment that any book is worth reading if there's just one good part in it.

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