My first encounter with Virginia Woolf's work was in the form excerpts in a university textbook from A Room of One's Own. I decided quite quickly that this woman was worth my time, shelved The Waves as to-read on Goodreads, and became excited to discover that I'd have to read To the Lighthouse for a later class. I figured it would be good; I at least knew the writing would be lovely. But I really didn't know what to expect overall.
To the Lighthouse is a complicated novel. Woolf's stream-of-conscious style takes readers into the heads of several different characters without warning to help us understand their perspectives. Most notably, there is Mrs. Ramsay, a conservative mother deeply attached to her children who everyone seems to admire; her husband, a scholar obsessed over whether or not his work will remain relevant; James, their youngest child who loathes his father; and Lily, a painter who spends time with the family. Lily is so unlike Mrs. Ramsay as she has no plans to marry and struggles to understand Mrs. Ramsay's allure, and all the while, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay's different parenting styles leave a remarkable impact on their children.
I will admit that I struggled with the stream-of-consciousness at first. It's not that I didn't know which character's head I was in; I thought the most difficult part was trying to figure out who was being thought of. It didn't take me too long to realize that this is part of what made To the Lighthouse special: I don't think Woolf would have been able to do what she set out to accomplish in a different style.
It's easy to feel when reading this book. There are so many moments of tension where no one is saying much but the characters are thinking a lot, and then there are other moments of utter sadness. I felt horrible for the children of this novel as Mr. Ramsay was a poisonous person to be around, and in turn, there were moments I felt horrible for Mr. Ramsay too. Every time I read a novel that deals with family relations, I wonder why it isn't a more common theme in books... It's so powerful.
In addition to perspective, time is a key element in this story, and along with it, the inevitability that nothing and no one will last forever. It can be a difficult concept to grapple with, but I didn't find this theme depressing. A family far from perfect to begin with has to deal with one another, even if full of hatred or mixed emotions, and they have to deal with death. The same goes for their friends. Lily and Carmichael both have revelations sparked by this tumultuous and intriguing family, and I can't quite put my finger on it, but I could relate to Lily's emotional realizations at the end about Mrs. Ramsay. It was one of the moments that ripped at my heart.
But as I said before, To the Lighthouse didn't leave me depressed. Just in a strange sort of awe. I don't think I expected it to be quite so powerful and I don't think I expected to relate to it based on a short description I read of it... It's a really beautiful book. I loved it, and I'm definitely planning on reading some more of Woolf's work.