Leaving Van Gogh fits into that growing category of literary novels that imagine artists' personalities and the background behind the creation of their masterpieces. Dr. Paul Gachet, the physician caring for Vincent van Gogh at the time of his death, reminisces about his professional relationship with his patient and how it grew into a friendship during the seventy days Vincent spent at Auvers-sur-Oise, a small farming town northwest of Paris, in the summer of 1890.
Even if Van Gogh did hijack a narrative that was meant to focus on Dr. Gachet and the provenance of his art collection, as Wallace said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Gachet is equally well developed as a character. "I cared deeply about medical problems, but what I wanted to talk about was art," he explains at the beginning. Reasonable, humane, sympathetic, and fascinated by the human mind, Gachet is also an amateur painter who had befriended Cézanne and Pissarro and accepted paintings from them in exchange for medical help. It's through Pissarro that Gachet is introduced to art dealer Theo van Gogh, who asks him to oversee the care of his brilliant but mentally troubled brother, Vincent, who was recently released from an asylum in Provence.
Wallace places us into Gachet's shoes as he observes Vincent, the man and the artist. Van Gogh shows up unceremoniously on Gachet's doorstep, unwashed and ragged and overly thin, and proceeds to transform the quiet lives of Gachet and his two young-adult children with his zest for art. We see Vincent's intensity, the full-body technique with which he applies color to canvas, and the uncanny confidence that lets him believe his work will be remembered a century down the road. This is a wonderful novel to read for those who want to feel involved in the actual process of painting.
At the same time, Vincent remains apart from the people closest to him and seems unaware of the effect he has on them. This includes his devoted brother Theo, whose support of Vincent is draining him financially, as well as Gachet's agreeable daughter, Marguerite, who had never thought of herself as pretty until Vincent paints her at the piano.
It makes for a curious mix, and an irresistible project for Gachet, who starts out sure that the peace of the Auvers countryside, with its chestnut trees and vast wheat fields, is just what Vincent needs to cure him of his malady. He's wrong. Not only is artistic technique in transition at the time, from realism to Impressionism, but medicine sits at a turning point that proves frustrating for its practitioners. Not even experts can cure what they call "hysteria," if that's even what ails Vincent during his raving, near-violent episodes. Gachet doesn't know, and the tragedy is that he is no more able to save Vincent or his brother, an obvious syphilitic, than he could his wife, Blanche, who had died of consumption fifteen years earlier.
Through its interpretations of both Gachet and his patient, Leaving Van Gogh is an affecting portrait of courage in the face of helplessness, one well worth reading for insight into the creative process at its highest and lowest points.
This is the author's first historical novel, and she provides a detailed author's note explaining what was fact vs. invention. Although I didn't realize this when I first picked the book up, I've been reading Carol Wallace's work for some time; she is also the co-author (among other things) of The Official Preppy Handbook, which got passed around my middle school in the early '80s, and To Marry an English Lord, a dishy, informative account of American heiresses' marital successes and foibles in the Gilded Age and Edwardian eras.
Carol Wallace's Leaving Van Gogh was published by Spiegel & Grau (Random House) in April at $25.00 / $28.95 in Canada (hardcover, 268pp).