Book Review: To the Lighthouse (with Bonus Review)

Virginia Woolf’s critically acclaimed novel is heartfelt, poetic and philosophical, exploring universal themes in a personal way. While brief sections of the book gripped me, for the most part I found it difficult reading. I just couldn’t get into it. Therefore, I will combine this review with one for the much more entertaining book I was also reading at the time, Casino Royale.

The Ramsay family, along with some friends, are staying at their summer house on a Scottish island. The social dynamics between characters stand out, in particular Mr and Mrs Ramsay. Mr Ramsay is egotistical and short-tempered, and expects either admiration or sympathy from his family, depending on his mood; Mrs Ramsay is capable and influential, but wishes to appease her husband. Ten years later some of the characters return to the house, carrying the impact of those earlier relationships. Okay, so there’s this British spy named James Bond. He has recently been promoted to Double-O class—these are the guys you don’t mess with. A Russian agent named Le Chiffre has lost a bunch of money on investments gone wrong. Le Chiffre plans to replenish his cash at the Baccarat table before his bosses find out and eliminate him. Bond is sent to gamble against Le Chiffre and spoil his plans—all while facing assassins and double agents. It’s going to take all Bond’s cunning and skill—and a whole lot of luck—to make this mission a success.

Woolf uses an introspective storytelling approach. She keeps the plot slim, and provides most of the substance through the characters’ thoughts and observations. This unique style proves insightful and at times profound, but means the characters do almost nothing—a tedious journey which had me as the reader frequently asking, “Are we there yet?” Ian Fleming, on the other hand, keeps the plot moving and writes in a concise and practical manner, reflective of agent 007 himself: there is no time for navel-gazing while the sinister organisation SMERSH is up to its evil schemes.

There were parts of To the Lighthouse that gave me plenty to consider. The effects of Mr Ramsay’s emotionally tyrannical rule of his family made me think about myself as a husband and father. Do I use fear to manipulate? Am I deserving of the respect my children give me? Do my family members feel free to be themselves around me? And then there are other issues. What do I do if I’m sitting at a casino table and a Russian goon comes up behind me, holds a gun to my butt and threatens to blow my spine to smithereens? At least Casino Royale provides solutions to the dilemmas it raises.

To the Lighthouse is thoughtful and creative, and I get the appeal, but for me it is a case of all pondering and no plot makes for hard reading. 5/10. Casino Royale has James Bond. 7/10. A combined score of 12.



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