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Leaving Van Gogh: A Novel Hardcover – April 19, 2011

4.3 out of 5 stars 76 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

A Letter from Author Carol Wallace

Dr. Gachet

Vincent van Gogh
Dear Readers:

Are you a longtime fan of Vincent van Gogh? If so, you’re a step ahead of me. I’ve always loved art and haunted museums, but until I wrote Leaving Van Gogh I could walk past Vincent’s paintings with only a passing glance.

Even now I’m a little bit surprised that I’ve written a novel about him. I came across Dr. Paul Gachet while I was researching my master’s thesis in art history, back in 2005. Gachet was a doctor who treated mental illness in Paris in the late 19th century, and was also a friend of many of the great painters of the era. He seemed like a terrific subject for a novel. I thought I’d write about his collection of paintings, many of which ended up at the Musée d’Orsay.

And what happened? Vincent van Gogh hijacked the narrative. As I was writing, Vincent walked into Dr. Gachet’s sitting room in Auvers, France, a village northwest of Paris. He put down his portable easel and paint box, and started to talk. The focus of the novel shifted from the doctor’s pictures to the painter’s pain. Well, you can understand why. We novelists are looking for drama. We need pressure and conflict. Vincent van Gogh, in May of 1890, was a man under terrible strain. He wanted more than anything else to paint. But he had been mentally ill, confined to an asylum for a year, and he knew that he was still menaced by his demons. That, obviously, was my story.

But before I could write the whole book I needed to do a lot of research. When it became clear that Vincent was going to be the star of the show, I started to read his letters and that is how my affection for him took root. He was such a stoic. He endured such anguish, and scarcely complained. He believed in his art when only his brother Theo and Dr. Gachet shared his enthusiasm. He wrote to Theo, “It is my earnest hope that I am not working for myself alone.” He never knew how much he would matter to us all.

Dr. Gachet’s side of the story fascinated me, too. It was a period before doctors had many tools to deal with mental illness, but Gachet took a humane and sympathetic stance toward his patients. A man who had always been fascinated by melancholy, he was in some ways the ideal physician for Van Gogh. He was certainly one of Vincent’s greatest fans, even after the painter’s death.

From Publishers Weekly

With several middle-grade books behind her, Wallace makes her adult fiction debut with an intense look at the last months of Vincent van Gogh through the eyes of Paul Gachet, a doctor specializing in mental illness. In the spring of 1890 Theo van Gogh, Vincent's younger brother, approaches Gachet with a request. Vincent was moving to Auvres, France, to paint and seek peace in the countryside. Theo wants Gachet, who once lived in the region, to supervise his brother. Gachet, a known patron of the arts and an amateur artist himself, agrees and is immediately drawn to van Gogh's luminous work. As the seasons pass he bears witness to the painter's mental anguish and struggles to determine what maladies so consume him. As he watches the artist's troubling downfall, Gachet must determine how best to care for van Gogh—and the family his death would leave in need. Tapping a deep well of research, Wallace paints a portrait of how madness can both make and break a man. But by making the clinical Gachet his narrator, the author pushes readers away, rather than giving them a chance to get to know the haunted figure behind the canvas. (Apr.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (April 19, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400068797
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400068791
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #687,174 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Diana Faillace Von Behren VINE VOICE on March 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Remember the scene in director Jodie Foster's film "Little Man Tate" when Fred, the boy genius, is asked by his mentor why he thought painter Vincent Van Gogh depicted a solitary white iris amidst an entire field of the purple variety? Fred's simple yet profound response, "Because he was lonely," seems to provide answers to many questions about the passionate artist, all of which are touched upon with sensitivity and sympathy by author Carol Wallace in her novel "Leaving Van Gogh."

Narrated by the doctor immortalized by Van Gogh's painting, the "Portrait of Dr. Gachet," the novel gracefully explores themes of love, friendship, genius, melancholy, mental illness and a physician's obligation to his patient. Because of his experience in treating mental illness at the Bicêtre and Salpêtrière hospitals in Paris, Paul Gachet is asked by Theo Van Gogh to treat his brother Vincent in the doctor's home town of Auvers-sur-Oise, a community in a northwest suburb of France's capital city. As an amateur painter with much interaction as a professional consultant with other notable artists of the time period (Pissarro, Renoir, Manet, and Cezanne), Dr. Gachet interacts with Vincent on a level to which they both can relate, all the while observing the compliant patient for clues that will unlock the secret of his acute melancholy and mood swings. As the relationship between the doctor and the artist develops into a friendship, Gachet attempts to understand Vincent's passionate genius in order to enable the painter to continue endowing his work with the great beauty and full spectrum of human experience encapsulated within each precisely rendered brush stroke.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In May 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, after his release from a mental asylum in the South of France, went North again, to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, not far from Paris. There he took rooms in an inn near the house of Dr. Paul Gachet, a specialist in mental disturbances. Gachet was an amateur painter himself and a friend of many of the Impressionists; he immediately saw the genius of the troubled painter who dashed off 70 paintings in as many days at Auvers, before shooting himself in late July. But Vincent saw a different side to his doctor, as he wrote in a letter to his brother Theo: "I have seen Dr. Gachet, who gives me the impression of being quite eccentric, though his medical experience must maintain his equilibrium while he struggles with the nervous troubles that he clearly suffers from as badly as I do."

I knew this letter from my earlier career as an art historian, so was intrigued by the premise of a book about Van Gogh's last days, as narrated by the doctor who apparently reflected both his talent and his troubles -- not so much the blind leading the blind, as Vincent also said, but the dazzled helping the dazzled. Might Carol Wallace not do something for painting akin to what Adam Foulds does for poetry in THE QUICKENING MAZE, about the mad poet John Clare and his guardian? My hopes were raised by a flashback where Gachet attempts to draw female patients at the Paris mental hospital, the Salpêtrière, and feels his clumsy attempts taking him deeper into their madness, but Wallace does not really go this route. She keeps Gachet as the doctor throughout, sympathetic but always objective.
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Dr. Gachet is an elderly widower with two grown (or nearly grown) children, an amateur artist, enthusiast and collector, whose practice and hobbies puts him in contact with many of the future famous Impressionists. A compassionate man, who's studied and developed newer, more humane methods of treating the mentally disordered, he's visited one day by a client called Theo Van Gogh, who wishes to consult him about his brother, Vincent. A gifted if eccentric soul who suffers from mood swings and other baffling problems, Vincent is recently released from an asylum and looking for someplace quiet to paint. Theo is dealing with his own health issues and has a family of his own; though he is devoted to his brother, he hopes that Dr. Gachet can provide at least some relief.

Of course, anyone familiar with the life and work of Van Gogh knows where this is going, but being historically grounded doesn't make the novel any less interesting. The pace is somewhat sedate, but I never found it to drag. Dr. Gachet is a likeable narrator, unusually humble for a physician. Though at first, he appears far more stable than Vincent, it is eventually revealed that he, too, has a painful secret. The theme of a "wounded healer" who is helped by the patient he sets out to help is well-portrayed here. Also, the paintings themselves, the rural setting and the steps of the artistic process are beautifully depicted. Highly recommended.
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I find it a bit disconcerting that Carol Wallace says on her Amazon author page: "I've always loved art and haunted museums, but until I wrote Leaving Van Gogh I could walk past Vincent's paintings with only a passing glance." I, personally, have loved Van Gogh's paintings all of my life since I first learned about him at an early age when I read Lust for Life and saw the movie.

So much has been written by and about Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, that it is difficult to find a new niche within the story to write another novel. Wallace bravely took on the story of Vincent's last few months from the point of view of Dr. Gachet, made famous by the portrait that Vincent painted. She bases her dialog on some of Vincent's letters to Theo and developed the family of Dr. Gachet based on a few records and historical data.

I found this story to be interesting at times. The descriptions of Vincent's painting style and the beautiful colors he used are lively and bright. On the other hands much of the time I thought the story was somewhat pedestrian, especially when Dr. Gachet wandered off into flights of fancy about his days while he was in training and the various patients he had. And even more so when he spent pages thinking about the gory details of his wife's illness and death. Using only the brief facts that she had Wallace tried to fill in with developing the story around members of the Gachet family. She creates a space for both of Gachet's children and tries to make them a part of the Van Gogh story. Doing this I think was a bit of a stretch and did not really ring true to me.

Over all, I was pretty disappointed that the story was not more about the Van Gogh family and far less about the Gachet family and his patients.
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