And perhaps,when Vincent arrived that summer, he noticed that nascent stirring about me. He saw that I was bursting to come to life again. Twenty-one years of age, and for the first time since I was a young child, I wanted to dance in the garden and sing.
(from The Last Van Gogh, page 72)
The Last Van Gogh chronicles the last 70 days in the life of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, set in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise during the summer of 1890. It was my book club’s May pick. (I wasn’t able to attend last month’s meeting, so I can’t include everyone’s thoughts this time around.) I was especially excited about this book because Alyson Richman’s novel The Lost Wife made my “Best of 2011” list. Richman tells this story through the eyes of Marguerite Gachet, the 21-year-old daughter of the homeopathic doctor treating 37-year-old Vincent for depression and anxiety. Marguerite was the subject of two portraits painted in the days before his suicide.
Just like her late mother, Marguerite feels trapped. She’s basically a maid to her father and younger brother, Paul, and has little contact with the world outside their home, except to go shopping or attend Mass. When Dr. Gachet isn’t creating his questionable tinctures and treating his own melancholy, he fancies himself a painter and an art collector and drops the names of his artist friends Cézanne and Pissarro as often as he can. He doesn’t approve when Vincent voices a desire to paint Marguerite — and neither does Paul, whose failed attempts to secure attention and praise from Vincent strain his relationship with his sister.
The attraction between Marguerite and Vincent is intense and makes Marguerite feel alive for the first time. Though her father is not likely to approve, Louise-Josephine (the illegitimate daughter of Marguerite and Paul’s “governess” who has been hidden away in the Gachet home since she was 14) gives her reason to hope. However, Louise-Josephine’s chances of a happily-ever-after are as impossible as her own.
The Last Van Gogh develops slowly, giving readers a good understanding of the Gachet family’s dynamics and the obstacles in the way of Marguerite’s happiness. Readers know from the beginning that this will be a tragic love story, but that didn’t stop me from hoping for a different ending for Vincent. Once Vincent decides he needs to paint Marguerite, the pace of the narrative picks up, as Vincent’s poor financial and mental condition and the jealousy and possessiveness pervading the Gachet home conspire against them.
The novel shines in Richman’s descriptions of Vincent’s paintings, from the vivid colors to the symbolism, from his frenzied brush strokes to his burning need to paint whatever inspired him. She does a wonderful job portraying him as a troubled genius, and one can understand why Marguerite would be drawn to him. I really felt for Marguerite; she was so isolated, stifled, lonely, and desperately in need of freedom.
The Last Van Gogh is a lovely historical novel about art and inspiration, love and freedom, and loyalty and obligation. I enjoyed reading about Richman’s inspiration for the book in the author’s note, and I couldn’t help but do some research of my own, searching for information about the Gachets and looking up the paintings Van Gogh painted in Auvers, particularly his portraits of Marguerite. This is a novel that requires a bit of patience, but readers will be rewarded with rich descriptions of the artistic process and a heartfelt tale of first love.
Disclosure: I borrowed The Last Van Gogh from the public library.
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