Before reading this Woolf novel, I had previously read A Room of One’s Own (long essay) and To the Lighthouse (novel) and had liked both.
Orlando was a remarkable piece of satirical fiction which deals with the inter-connected themes of desire and aspiration, memory and illusion, and gender disparities and sexual orientation. The author takes readers on a 300-year exploratory journey through Orlando’s biographer’s (the narrator) viewpoint, beginning at late Elizabethan age right up to the year 1928.
When we first meet Orlando, he is a handsome boy born into wealth and nobility in England with literary ambitions. His “life-time” adventures include unrequited love for a Russian princess, let-down by a famous poet who ridicules his poetic work, acting as ambassador to Constantinopole and witnessing an insurrection, a spontaneous sex change into a woman, living with gypsies, return to his/her homeland in search of love and literary fame, and ultimately finding both after many experiments.
I think this must be the most bizarre novel I’ve ever read in terms of subject matter. It does remind me in some ways of Voltaire’s Candide in the sense of imaginary world building. This novel was hardly a page-turner, as the writing is at times dense, at times florid and descriptive, and I found it hard to follow the author’s train of thought. As much as I’ve ascribed those themes mentioned above to the novel, I’m left with much doubt as to what central message the author was really trying to convey, although I could detect her mockery of Orlando's (the portrayal of whom is supposedly based on Woolf's lover Vita Sackville-West) mediocre literary skills.
My conclusion is that I liked the book, but didn’t love it. I’m giving the novel 3 stars.