When they first meet in a public garden on the fringes of the city in summer 1888, both are seeking a place of refuge and repose. They find it in one another. Vincent has just moved from Paris to Arles to take artistic inspiration from the local people and beautiful scenery and to establish an artists’ colony in southern France. In escaping to the countryside, Rachel wants to forget, temporarily, her unfortunate life as a fille de maison on the Rue du Bout d’Arles. Both have painful romantic pasts and are short of funds: Vincent depends on the largesse of his art dealer brother, Theo, for his subsistence, while Rachel, forced out of her home after an indiscretion, means to earn enough francs to get her name removed from the city’s register of prostitutes.
Although Vincent starts out as her client, he always treats her with respect, bringing her flowers and ensuring she enjoys their time together as much as he does. Their growing romance becomes a source of comfort to them both, and in willingly cooking and cleaning the yellow house where he lives, Rachel adds a touch of domesticity and normality to their lives. In his exuberant paintings of sunflowers, she catches a glimpse of his passionate soul. Although she is threatened by Vincent’s reluctance to mention her to his family, Rachel remains devoted to her lover. Their love remains constant, despite the censure of her house’s proprietress and the crises of madness he experiences – which become ever more frequent and severe.
Bundrick presents Vincent van Gogh as a gentle man possessed of enormous artistic creativity yet tormented by inner demons, a victim of a medical condition – possibly manic depression – that no one, neither Rachel nor himself, is able to fight. With its imagery of the ruins of Roman Gaul and the dingy cafés lining the city’s streets in the late 19th century, Sunflowers has a strong sense of place and time and serves as an enticement to visit southern France. Like the paintings themselves, the narrative is suffused with brilliant swirls of color, as seen in the warm gold of the wheat fields and the deep blue of the sky over Arles. Vincent himself, with his red hair and beard and famed yellow straw hat, becomes part of the overall portrait. The plot moves in accord with the rhythms of Provençal life, from the unrushed time of the wheat harvest to the mistrals that blow fiercely through the city. It’s a richly satisfying reading experience.
A sidenote: I took Sunflowers with me on my recent European vacation, and it kept me happily occupied on a long overnight flight. I began writing up my review on our first night in Munich. To my surprise, I saw a note on the back of the book that the cover painting could be found in Munich’s Neue Pinakothek, which specializes in 18th and 19th-century European art. And so we made plans to visit the museum (and painting) in person the following day.
Sunflowers was published this October by Avon A at $14.99 (401pp, pb, 978-0-06-176527-8).