Review: Leaving Van Gogh by Carol Wallace

What is better than getting presents on your birthday….getting unexpected gifts on your birthday :).

I had seen the book Leaving Van Gogh by Carol Wallace listed as a free advanced copy giveaway on the Goodreads website.

There were many others I could have entered but I was immediately drawn to this one. Without reading the description I knew I would instantly fall in love with the book as I simply love the subject of the book (Impressionist art) without question, one of my favorites being Van Vogh himself.

I was thrilled to get the email that I had won the book on my birthday!

I started the book Friday night and finished it Saturday night, needless to say it was an engrossing tale!

Regardless of the reviews and expectations that I had seen about the book, nothing could prepare me for how this book draws you in and you instantly become part of the energy while reading the tale. I became drawn to the book, sucked in if you will, by the romanticism and the overall tragedy of the characters and story… tragic but so familiar in many ways.

I have been a Van Gogh fan for years. Though there are other Impressionist painters that I like better than Van Gogh (Manet, Degas, Monet, and Renior are a couple of my favs)–there is no one like Van Gogh. No one can match how he views people…he really gets into your mind and the result is rather unsettling.

I will thrilled that the book was able to really grasp the essence of these paintings and show the reader how troubled the artist was. It was rich and colorful….ironically like a painting. The story is written from the perspective of  Dr Paul Gachet, Van Vogh’s personal physician in the months before his death.

Though I admire Van Gogh’s work I don’t know too much about him, besides the ‘basics’….’he cut off his ear in a fit of madness’….’he was CRAZY’….’He was brilliant, a genius!’….and of course that he committed suicide. I did not know ANYTHING about this Dr Gachet (DG) who apparently worked with many other well known Impressionist painters of the time the most famous (eventually) being Vincent Van Gogh.

The story opens with DG re-burying Van Gogh and his brother (Theo), so that his brother could lie forever by his side. The doctor then starts to recall how he and Vincent became acquainted and how their friendship changed their lives. DG was also the subject of one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings.

The story covers the entire summer Van Gogh spent with the Gachet family in the summer of 1890 while also addressing the mental state of the man and how his painting changed and developed during that time. This book was all inclusive and added wonderful insight into not only Van Gogh and DG, but also the theories and treatments for the ‘mad’. Here is a general summary of the novel from Goodreads:

In the summer of 1890, in the French town of Auvers sur-Oise, Vincent van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver.  He died two days later, at the age of thirty-seven, largely unknown despite having completed over two thousand works of art that would go on to become some of the most important and valued in the world. In this riveting novel, Carol Wallace brilliantly navigates the mysteries surrounding the master artist’s death, relying on meticulous research to paint an indelible portrait of Van Gogh’s final days—and the friendship that may or may not have destroyed him. Telling Van Gogh’s story from an utterly new perspective—that of his personal physician, Dr. Gachet, specialist in mental illness and great lover of the arts—Wallace allows us to view the legendary painter as we’ve never seen him before.  In our narrator’s eyes, Van Gogh is an irresistible puzzle, a man whose mind, plagued by demons, poses the most potentially rewarding challenge of Gachet’s career. Wallace’s narrative brims with suspense and rich psychological insight as it tackles haunting questions about Van Gogh’s fate. A masterly, gripping novel that explores the price of creativity, Leaving Van Gogh is a luminous story about what it means to live authentically, and the power and limits of friendship.

One thing which I found especially uncanny  and unsettling was the narrator….throughout the story he spoke of his own grief and anguish over the loss of his wife. He seemed to doubt his skills and purpose and he especially didn’t like reliving his failures. I felt from the beginning that DG was just as mad as Van Gogh (through probably suffering other, different ailments) and when Van Gogh himself came to the same conclusion later in the book I whole-heartedly agreed. DG had an obvious need to impress Vincent not only with his own painting hobbies but also with his medical abilities he just wanted Van Gogh to accept him and to some degree there seemed like a lot of Van Gogh ‘hero worship’ happening among all the members of the Gachet family whenever Vincent was around.

Though I know that the doctor was sane and lucid while Vincent was clearly the lunatic….I couldn’t help but read the doctor’s melancholy and disappointment in between the lines. I love how the doctor mused about what it would be like to be mad, how it might happen, what were the signs etc. I loved that there was deep self reflection from DG when he thought about the combination of madness and genius within Vincent. I felt like he was very honest about himself and spoke with such truth that he was admitting his faults regardless of how painful they were for him to relive and admit to. Though I think it must have haunted him to know his faults and have to admit them so clearly but this is what made his narrative raw, emotional, and real much like Van Gogh’s paintings for me.

There are many memorable self reflective questions, musings, and quotes in this book which provoke an inner self examination not just in the characters but in the readers as well….we are meant to see within ourselves and ponder what life would have been like for Van Gogh, for DG, and for many of the mad patients of the day. Early in the book DG wonders in an inner monologue  what it must be like for people who are trapped in their own minds….prisoners of their own delusions and fantasies:

What must it be like, to know yourself untrustworthy, to have something take over your free will?…It is difficult enough to live knowing one’s strengths and limitations. But most of us stumbling through life do not bear the burden of knowing that we may turn into monsters (32).

This same type of reflection and wondering continues throughout most of the book but rather than letting the readers perseverate on an answer, Wallace helps us to really see and understand the answer to these questions through DG.

Like so many fans of  historical fiction, the first question I always ask myself is ‘how much of this is really real’, which Wallace ironically asks the same thing in her author’s notes at the end of the book. I love that she added the historical references and background on her research….it cleared up a lot of lingering questions for me.

The book is meant to be a work of fiction based on historical facts, I know that many of the things in the book are fiction…and I don’t think this has any bearing on the general outcome of the book. I think having a story told with a personal narrator makes it more intimate and personal to read than just facts in a history book real facts or not. I loved that Wallace talks about the developing field of mental health especially when DG visits the hospital later in the book to consult with a colleague about Vincent.

I love how the book gradually becomes darker and darker but is never entirely consumed by the madness content of its plot. Like one of Van Gogh’s painting. I was instantly enthralled in this book from the opening line and I would highly recommend it to anyone, you DO NOT need to be an art lover to read this book.

You cannot help but be drawn into this book, like one of Van Gogh’s paintings the reader suddenly enters into a world entirely different than their own you cannot help but finish this book and look at Van Gogh’s works (or your own world for that matter) with new eyes….it’s like seeing his works and life with a new eyes and perspective. Five out of five starts, brushes down!

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: Leaving Van Gogh by Carol Wallace

  • Hardcover, 288 pages
  • Published April 19th 2011 by Spiegel & Grau (first published April 5th 2011)
  • ISBN 1400068797 (ISBN13: 9781400068791)

This book counts toward: NA

  • Hosted by: NA
  • Books for Challenge Completed: NA

Recommendation: 5 out of 5

Genre: Literature, Fiction, Historic Fiction, Contempo lit

Memorable lines/quotes: 

What must it be like, to know yourself untrustworthy, to have something take over your free will?…It is difficult enough to live knowing one’s strengths and limitations. But most of us stumbling through life do not bear the burden of knowing that we may turn into monsters (32)



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