"I have been dragged through time, summoned into this world like a book requisitioned from a distant library." So says Virginia Woolf, who, inexplicably, is resurrected in the Berg collection of manuscripts in New York in the present day. She is 'summoned' by a modern day writer, Angela Lamb, a Woolf enthusiast who is about to give a lecture on her in Istanbul. Thus begins their adventures together in three continents. A great idea; once one gets over the shock of it one asks: what are you going to do with Virginia now she's here? It's a delicious prospect.
A third of their time (and perhaps the best part) is spent in New York. They visit the Met in a vain search for Duncan's, Roger's and Vanessa's pictures. Virginia briefly falls into a depression, realising she will never see the three of them again. But generally she's adventurous, curious, eccentric, part dotty aunt, part helpless, wide-eyed child - or that's how Angela sees her. Virginia gets drunk at the Algonquin Hotel, thinking fondly of Leonard. She delights in the Statue of Liberty, seeing it as "a model of the just female warrior". Best of all, to raise much needed cash, she sells the two pristine first edition copies of her novels which she brought with her from the underworld, inscribed, to a dealer for a colossal sum - this is one of my favourite scenes in the book, it made me laugh aloud. The value of her first editions help to make up for the disappointment in finding two of the big iconic bookstores closed for business - in this section of the book, Maggie Gee has some wry reflections to make on the precarious state of the book world.
The second part seems overlong to me. It takes place on the flight to Istanbul. Here, Virginia's dated, mildly non-pc comments about Jews and servants embarrass Angela, who by now is becoming exasperated by the waywardness of her famous charge. Virginia lacks social awareness; but people seem to take to her in a way they don't take to Angela, which causes some resentment. Virginia's comparative viewpoint gives Gee the opportunity to show, amusingly, how social mores have changed.
The final section has them traipsing around Istanbul which Virginia visited a century ago. They get caught up in a riot, visit a tower and a temple, both of which have personal associations for Virginia; and then she has an adventure all of her own, a surprisingly amorous one which, though it ends in near farce, gives her something which had eluded her all her life. The section ends with the conference in which Angela throws away her academic script and speaks from the heart about Woolf's books and her contribution to culture. She's joined by her fourteen year old daughter, Gerda - whose globe-trotting adventures we've also been following. Gerda reads from a book she's just discovered, 'A Room of One's Own', to the delight of the delegates. Virginia sits - basks - through it all. It is one of the high points of the book, funny and uplifting.
The novel is wonderfully easy to read. It is written in an unusual style, with the voices of the three main protagonists - Virginia, Angela and Gerda - telling their individual stories in brief monologues, interleaved with narrative passages, quotes, conversations, a story by Gerda, etc. Perhaps the interior voices are not quite differentiated enough, although Virginia's on the whole is more poetic than Angela's. Wisely, Gee doesn't try to emulate Woolf's literary voice - even though there are some fine passages which approach it, such as on page 205, describing Woolf's self-sacrificing mother.
I was amused, delighted, carried along by it all, but I have to say I wasn't much moved by it, as one can be by Woolf's life. To me the novel is more a like a highly polished form of entertainment rather than an original meditation; it's points are sharp and witty but the whole lacks depth. Did she capture the personality of Woolf? Or did she make her too much like a dotty aunt abroad? Could she have gone deeper into the existential nature of Woolf's resurrection? Or was she wise to leave all that aside to concentrate on the comedy of the situation? It's for each reader to decide, of course. In the end, I loved the sheer panache of it. Gee's respect and love for Woolf shines through the book, adding to the sum of what we know and feel about her. It's wonderfully original.