VANESSA AND HER SISTER, by Priya Parmar. Ballantine, 348 pp., $26.
WEST OF SUNSET, by Stewart O'Nan. Viking, 289 pp., $27.95.
In her graceful, captivating second novel, Priya Parmar imagines the lives and loves of the famous Stephen sisters, Vanessa and Virginia. "Vanessa and Her Sister" begins in 1905, when they set up house with their brothers in London, and leaves off in 1912, when Virginia marries Leonard Woolf. Told through fictionalized letters and diary entries, the novel places Vanessa at the center of the family dramas: the fragile mental state of her beautiful, erratic, manipulative sister; her brother's death at age 26; and her husband's betrayal.
Vanessa offers an emotional oasis for the Stephen household and the artists and writers who gather in their Bloomsbury home: brittle Lytton Strachey, victim of a series of thwarted love affairs with bright young men; Roger Fry, the influential art curator; shy E.M. Forster, just beginning his writing career; and Ottoline Morrell, draped in silk and amber, who drifts around Vanessa's drawing room "like a great paper bird." An attentive diarist, Vanessa records verbatim their passionate opinions about art, debates about philosophy, and, not least, catty gossip about sex.
Echoes of Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" emerge in Parmar's portrayal of serene, maternal Vanessa and childishly self-centered Virginia, often on the verge of mania. Once, Vanessa notes, Virginia "talked for three days without stopping for food or sleep or a bath."
Yet, she can be charming, and after Vanessa marries Clive Bell, the culmination of his ardent, yearslong pursuit, Virginia sets out to seduce him. Vanessa is devastated, both by her sister's duplicity and her husband's. He never intended that marriage would "interrupt his personal freedom," he admits to Vanessa. The affair, which Vanessa suspects was not carnal, nevertheless caused an irreparable rift in her relationship with her sister, long after Clive moved on to other lovers and Virginia married Leonard. "There can be no beginning again," Vanessa writes to her. "Love and forgiveness are not the same thing."
That's what F. Scott Fitzgerald learns, as well, in Stewart O'Nan's sympathetic rendering in "West of Sunset," a novel about the writer's last years in 1930s Hollywood, where Fitzgerald has come to make money. Zelda is being treated in an expensive private sanitarium; their daughter, Scottie, goes to a tony prep school; and Scott, no longer the suave chronicler of the Jazz Age, is having trouble placing his stories.
Screenwriting lures him, but he faces the frustrations of working in an industry peopled with backbiting writers, fickle studio heads and temperamental directors. He is signed onto projects, only to see them shelved after months of work. One assignment has him "restaging the French Revolution as a tragic love story for Garbo." He attends a star-studded premiere for "Three Comrades," the first movie on which he got screenwriting credit, only to discover much of his writing was cut.
Early mornings, fueled by Benzedrine, cigarettes, and coffee, he tries to work on stories that magazines repeatedly refuse, and on a novel about Hollywood. For the rest of the day, he fights the temptation to drink, a battle he too often loses, despite desperate promises to Sheilah Graham, the much younger woman he loves.
Graham grew up poor in London's East End, changed her name from Lily Shiel to hide her Jewish identity, worked as a stripper, and reinvented herself as a sophisticated gossip columnist. Beautiful and ambitious, she loves Scott, but he repeatedly tests her willingness to forgive: He is a bitter drunk, "a selfish, angry little man who thinks he's superior because he reads poetry and was famous once twenty years ago," she says.
In O'Nan's glitzy, tawdry Hollywood, Humphrey Bogart and his tipsy girlfriend turn up as Scott's neighbors, acerbic Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley are his co-workers. Hemingway visits, a guest of his friend Marlene Dietrich, expounding about his travels in war-torn Spain. While Hemingway's career flourishes -- he sends Scott his new book, "For Whom the Bell Tolls" -- Fitzgerald struggles. Dead of a heart attack at 44, he leaves Zelda "haunted with vagrant memories. ... The soul aspires to be known," she writes to Scottie. "Mine will never be again so deeply now that he is gone."
Virginia and Vanessa, Scott and Zelda have become such familiar cultural icons that it would seem impossible to take a fresh look. But Parmar and O'Nan amply succeed in these two engaging novels: vivid, empathetic portraits of indelible characters and their worlds.