Reviews of Voyage Out, the (1920)
Virginia Woolf's "The Voyage Out" is a little like its main character, Rachel: in a lot of ways, it's very naive, but ultimately it is as charming and as soulful as it's meant to be. A rough story about a 24 year old girl completely innocent about "how to live" is the focal point to a portrait of English society--with the England taken out. Multiple characters go on vacation to Saint Marina, a South American tourist town, and there set about having tea, discussing England, and falling in love.
For the most part the writing is very good, though it could use a bit of paring down in places and sometimes is a bit too over-explanatory. However, as a first book, it's much better than what it could have been, and it's still very good to read. Its main strength lies in its character development. Virginia Woolf had obviously spent a lot of time figuring out every aspect of her characters' personalities and sets them together very well. Sometimes it seems like she teeters dangerously close to looking down her nose at them, especially since a lot of the tone is satirical in places, but overall she seems to have a distinct understanding for the various types of English people that populate her world (both the world she's lived in and the settings she's created).
However, her use of the characters and storyline seems to a large degree arbitrary enough to feel contrived. Characters come when they're needed for a plot point and either go when they're unneeded or literally put into a corner and ignored until an opportunity arises to use them again. Luckily, it seems that Woolf herself felt that sense of pervading utility, so worked on creating a social climate more realistic than in most books, where sometimes characters simply have other things to do than appear in every discussion. Just as her knowledge of the characters are good, her descriptions of overall workings of social events are adept as well.
However, as previously mentioned, those strengths tend to weaken under her early, unpracticed skill. Some of the point of the story seems to be missing, and at many points it tends to drag on needlessly. Also, her quoted assertion that she does not like happy endings works to ill effect here, with a death included almost arbitrarily. Worse, her tragic man, Hewet, completely disappears when his reaction becomes the most important part of the work. It's not that Woolf wouldn't know how to write his grief--she was familiar enough with death as it were--it's just that she doesn't really seem to have much reason for any of it to occur beyond the fact that she needed to end the book and disliked the thought of "happily ever after," which is ironic because it wouldn't have been, if she continued with some of the vast alienation both of the characters were feeling in their togetherness.
At any rate, it's worth the time to read, especially if one is interested in Virginia Woolf's entire work. However, almost every edition of the story I've seen has a back jacket that explains that its style is to a degree opposed to her later work, so for anyone interested in exploring Woolf as an author it'd be much more profitable to pick up something she made later on, such as Jacob's Room and Mrs. Dalloway.