This is possibly the most annoying book I have ever listened to.
Annete Bening is great as the narrator of this audiobook: she catches the stream-of-consciousness voices of the characters perfectly. The problem is that listening to these voices is exactly
like listening to someone's interior monologue as they natter to themselves about every detail they observe going throughout their day.
I haven't read James Joyce's Ulysses
, but apparently the writing style in Mrs. Dalloway
is often compared to that book. I can't say it makes me eager to tackle Joyce. There isn't really a plot in this book, just character studies. Clarissa Dalloway is a high-society woman planning a party; we follow her throughout her day starting with a walk along Bond Street. She meets an old flame who's just returned from India, prompting reflection about why she married her stodgy, reliable husband Richard Dalloway instead of the more interesting but less stable Peter Walsh. Then the narrative switches to Walsh's point of view, as we follow him going about London, reflecting on Clarissa and her refusal of his marriage proposal and the married woman he's now hooked up with.
The book drifts in and out of viewpoints, shifting perspectives and threads of narrative. Mrs. Dalloway is the main character whose head we get into, but we are also treated to the thoughts of Septimus Warren Smith, a traumatized, suicidal veteran of the Great War, whose Italian wife can't understand why he keeps acting ill when the doctors say nothing is wrong with him.
The prose is elegant and pretty and Woolf is quite artful in the way she gets us thoroughly into the characters' heads, telling us all about their hopes, fears, secrets, and entire life histories in snippets of rambling internal monologue. It's one of those "literary" novels whose craft I can appreciate while making me never want to read it again. I can see why Woolf is studied by graduate students, but nothing here spoke to me or interested me, and listening to Clarissa Dalloway go on and on and on and on, treating every precious thought she has like a precious little diamond, listening to self-involved Peter Walsh go on and on and on about his love lives past and present and his failure to "make a success" of himself, listening to Septimus Smith go on and on and on about his dead friend who haunts him and how detached he is from society, made me feel like someone trapped on a bus between people talking on their cell phones.
A snarkier review of this book could legitimately be hashtagged with #firstworldproblems, aside from Septimus's PTSD, which I'll grant that Woolf treated with a fair degree of nuance and sympathy for the time this was written. There's also a hint of a past lesbian infatuation and a lot of ruminating on the basic dissatisfaction of upper-class married life, which I guess is why this book is supposed to be an early "feminist" work.
It was not to my taste. Virginia Woolf may have been a genius, but I suspect you have to have your head somewhere like where Clarissa's or Septimus's heads are at to love this book. Maybe I'd have found the stream-of-consciousness prose more interesting and less annoying in print.