In part 1, the Ramsay family vacations at their summer home on the Isle of Skye. Young James hopes to visit a nearby lighthouse and his father seems to take delight in telling him that the weather will be too rough to make the trip, which disappoints the boy and contradicts his mother's promise.
In part 3, the family returns to their neglected vacation home 10 years later and plan again to visit the lighthouse - this time successfully to the delight of the adult James.
Parts 1 and 3 cover only 1 day each, while the much shorter part 2 covers the 10 years between, in which World War I occurs, children grow up, and several members of the family die.
Very little happens in the two longer chapters: A family conversation; a dinner party; a trip across the bay.
Even the dialogue is sparse: a few words are exchanged, followed by the inner monologue of everyone in the room. Often, they seem to know the thoughts of each other, although they don't always respond to them.
Woolf writes with an economy of words - both in her dialogue and in her narration; but she somehow provides the reader a glimpse inside her characters.
Mr. Ramsay is cold and stern, yet craves love and validation from his wife.
Mrs. Ramsay tries to balance the emotional needs of her husband and her children.
Spinster Liby, who takes 10 years to complete a painting, plagued by self-doubt and the insults of a misogynistic neighbor
Points of view switch rapidly, which can make the novel difficult to follow.
The novel is filled with symbolism and references to Woolf's own life (her family used to vacation by the sea when she was a girl). Liby emerges from the background of part 1 to be a key figure in part 3. Upon completion of her painting, Liby is a clear stand-in for the author, who struggled to be taken seriously in the early 20th century patriarchy.
Lighthouse as a metaphor. Always there; always available; but the family defers the joy of visiting it until it is too late for some of them.
I deferred the joy of reading this novel long enough.