Friday, July 5, 2013


Orlando, Virginia Woolf
Read: 11 September to 2 October 2012
4 / 5 stars

A mere 10-minute drive has separated me from my college best friend since March. Even with my knack for getting hopelessly lost in the wilds of Central Jersey, it’s the shortest distance between us since our days as roomies; unsurprisingly, however, life since we graduated six years ago has been filled with things like work and conflicting schedules and living with significant others whose company we actively enjoy, which means that we don't get to see each other as frequently as we would in a perfect world.

When she got engaged last month, I was among the first to know. And when she announced her happy news, it was in nearly the same breath that she asked me to be her matron of honor. It’s not like I've been writing my MOH speech since college or anything, which is rather fitting: Though our friendship didn’t blossom until we found each other through mutual friends in the final days of our sophomore year, she and I first crossed paths in a freshman oratory class wherein our final project -- a toast of some nature -- was called off when our professor had a family emergency that semester.

The way we became fast friends underscored the dawning realization that she was the first girl friend who I let bring out the unabashedly, endlessly silly THIS IS MY BESTIE FOR ALWAYS AND I LUUUURVE HER SO MUCH behavior that has punctuated our friendship for nearly a decade. Until we glommed onto each other in the wake of another friend's tragedy early in our junior year, I'd thought of myself as someone who'd always have peripheral female friends and much closer guy friends. Not to say that my high-school gal pals weren't an awesome bunch -- they were then and they still are now -- but I didn't know how to appreciate who they were until much later. It took meeting my twin-to-be in some friends’ dorm room as our sophomore year was drawing to a rapid close to realize that I'd spent years looking for this sister figure right in front of me. When I hesitantly friended her after a truly neurotic internal dialogue that summer on LiveJournal ("Is this stalkery?"; "Was she only humoring me and secretly wishing I'd shut the hell up?"; "Will she think I'm trying too hard to be her friend?"; etc.) only to discover that her username referenced Tristan and Iseult, I had a nagging suspicion that I had discovered a kindred spirit after a lifetime of right-person-wrong-time that neatly summarizes my self-inflicted messy track record with people until that point.

I was proven more right than I could've optimistically imagined when another mutual friend later christened us as twins, which is still how we squealingly address each other. She and I do have a staggering many things in common, save for her ability to, like, actually plan things (an area in which I fail with joyful abandon). So when we recently found ourselves with simultaneously out-of-state mates, she and I had every intention of cramming a whole lot of wedding stuff into an uncharacteristically sans-SO weekend. Actually, I had every intention of catching up on the reading that stupid work kept interrupting but if there's one thing that trumps solitary bookworming, it's a two-day romp through the tri-state area with my beloved and sorely missed twin.

Our university days were a blur of turning the college radio station (her territory) and college newspaper office (mine, and also her then-boyfriend's) into The Place to Be at Next-Morning-o'-Clock, nursing one cup of coffee after another in flagrant abuse of her Starbucks employee discount, trips to New Hope or Princeton for the hell of it or wherever our friends' makeshift bands were playing that weekend, scenic everythings for mutual shutterbugging, harassing the same roadies over and over again for set lists after seeing our favorite bands, and geeking the hell out over our shared affinities for things like British lit, British musical outfits and British spellings. So when she turned to me during our recent drive through Bucks County and said something along the lines of "Screw the bridal show, wanna go to New Hope?" and later "Oh damn, looks like we'll be spending tomorrow in New York" while ogling dresses from her living room couch, it was like we were carefree co-eds with time to kill together all over again.

So maybe I did do the content of my first non-required taste of Virginia Woolf a great disservice by tackling it in tiny pieces over the course of a month. But having Orlando on the brain while clumsily prancing around in pretty dresses in NYC boutiques, while examining tiny treasures together in New Hope shops, while making a mad dash through the Met in the hour before it closed as she played tour guide (where I discovered a love of art I didn't know she possessed) more than made up for that by reminding me of what it means to experience a feminine love to the point where you want to write pages and pages detailing all the things that make this woman uniquely magical so other people can come to love this quirk and that idiosyncrasy, too. And I think that, more than anything else, drove home the spirit of the novel better than an uninterrupted reading experience may have. My twin and I might not have shared the physical intimacy that Virginia and Vita did, but she's certainly someone who gets me in a way few others do.

There was so much of Orlando him/herself that had the part of me that needs to find myself in every artwork, song, film and book frantically underlining passage after passage in a story that, like my twin, I first encountered as a college freshman but didn't completely recognize the wonder of until much later. Thanks to my first big-girl's film-appreciation class, I was introduced to the whimsy of Orlando via its cinematic incarnation during the same semester I read A Room of One's Own, which should have been enough to make me a fan of Ginny Woolf had being an English major not left me with such an incongruous lack of reading time (speaking of things that never change....). Anyway. The things I foggily recall from the film -- frozen bodies underwater, positively scrumptious costumes, blocking choreographed down to an inch -- came screaming back and actually started adding to the sweeping narrative of this gorgeous novel.

But when I saw Orlando almost a decade ago, I had no idea that the novel itself was dedicated to Vita, nor did I know that Woolf's lady lover inspired the titular gender-bending character. Knowing that, plus having a better understanding of the historical guideposts that pop up throughout Orlando's centuries-long existence, turned this novel into the best kind of brain candy. I'm a sucker for literary allusions by the armful and lush symbolism (I'd rave about my late-to-the-party realization that Orlando is the oak tree she'd been immortalizing in verse for 300-some pages but hasn't this so-called review gone on long enough?) and pages soaked in true-to-life humanity, so it's only natural that I'd enjoy Virginia's ode to a woman for whom her passionate love most definitely stands the test of time. Way to throw down the gauntlet for the rest of us, Woolf. And challenge accepted.

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