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The Last Van Gogh by Alyson Richman

Book Source:  Library
Paperback: 308 pages
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The Last Van Gogh by Alyson Richman, which was our May book club selection (unfortunately, I missed this meeting due to obligations at the 2013 Gaithersburg Book Festival), is based on true events in near the end of Vincent Van Gogh’s life in Auvers, France, in the 1890s.  Told from the point of view of Marguerite Gachet, a story unfolds not so much about Van Gogh but about the cloistered life of a young woman trapped inside her own family home by not only an overbearing and controlling father, but also family secrets.  More than that, it is a tribute to an artist and the tension between that art and the desire to have a normal life, as well as the struggle between family obligation and one’s own desires.

“For a home that had so many colors and vibrant paintings on its walls, there were still so many shades of gray between us.”  (page 182)

Richman does really well in using painting techniques and colors to describe the scenes in Auvers, and it is almost as if the reader has stepped inside one of Van Gogh’s paintings and is walking around among the village’s people.  Another surprising element is that the chapter headings, which often appear in some translated works, are less in-your-face about each chapter’s contents.  The headings also add to the atmosphere of the novel, reinforcing the painting and French aspects of the novel.

“I had gone out to do my errands, as I always did in the early afternoon.  It was a warm, radiant day in May.  The sky was cornflower blue, the sun the color of crushed marigolds.  I have to confess that I walked a little slower that day when I passed by the station.  I knew approximately which train he would be arriving on.  So I walked with smaller steps than usual, carrying my basket of eggs and my loaves of bread.”  (page 1)

From the moment readers meet Marguerite, they can see her rebellious nature, even though her daily tasks showcase her obedience to her father at every turn.  When the secrets begin to unravel, she finds herself less torn between duty and desire and more willing to follow her own mind and heart, even if it means getting caught.  Her father is the most irritating and self-absorbed character as he seeks to ingratiate himself into the artistic community by claiming his tinctures are actual cures.  And the son, Paul, is just as bad as he attempts to please his father at every turn and garner his favor.  The only way he can gain that favor is through Marguerite’s downfall, which she brings about on her own during her fateful meeting with Van Gogh.

The Last Van Gogh by Alyson Richman is a rich story in character, setting, and nuance.  Van Gogh’s perceptive nature as an artist shines through in his painting of Dr. Gachet as an aging man with sallow features, but it also shines through in his paintings of Marguerite at the piano and in the garden.  A love story in painting that comes alive with each brush stroke, only to be mired by the rain streaked canvases touched by tinctures that are misused and the controlling desires of a man torn between propriety and his obsession with art.

About the Author:

Alyson Richman is the author of “The Mask Carver’s Son,” “The Rhythm of Memory (formerly published as Swedish Tango),” The Last Van Gogh,” and the national best-seller, “The Lost Wife.” She loves to travel, cook, ride her yellow bicycle, and do ballet. She currently lives in New York with her husband and two children.

This is my 33rd book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

  • Joseph Ellis

    Glad to know you liked it. The little club meeting we had after the festival was mostly positive.

  • I’m almost finished with this book. I loved The Lost Wife, so assumed I would love this one, too. I like it so far; it just develops more slowly.

  • Sounds like one I’m really going to enjoy!

  • I loved The Lost Wife so based on that alone I would read this one!

  • Beth Hoffman

    I’ve always loved Van Gogh’s art and reading about his life, but I have never read his life transposed into a work of fiction. This book sounds terrific!

    • That’s what drew me to this novel.

  • This sounds like a wonderful, evocative novel. Definitely on my wishlist now. Thanks for the review!

    • I really enjoyed this one, and apparently, she has other good novels out there.

  • I don’t know why I didn’t run out and get everything she wrote after reading The Lost Wife because I loved that so much! Thanks for alerting me to this one!

    • I still haven’t read The Lost Wife!