Click here to read reviewer Karyn Johnson's take on Leaving Van Gogh.
Seething with texture and mood, Wallaceís compelling novel focuses on the tortured genius of Vincent Van Gogh, one of the greatest painters of his generation. Fortune, however, does not come easy to this tormented
and oppressed soul, who struggles to reconcile his fanatical need to paint in a society that refuses to acknowledge his artistic talents.
Enter kindly Dr. Paul Gachet, a physician who once interned at the infamous asylum of Salpetriere. A specialist in exploring patients with mental illness, Gachet is convinced that melancholia is closely linked to artistic temperament. According to Theo Van Gogh, his brother is a complex, difficult man who is constantly plagued with numerous nervous ailments. Theo is also of the opinion that Vincent is far too fragile to live in complete independence.
Feeling it important his brother be under the care of a doctor, Theo asks Gachet to keep track of him, a solution that brings Vincent to the peaceful town
of Auvers-sur-Oise. As Vincent arrives at Gachetís house shabby and in poor health, "his skin rough and smelling of unwashed man," the doctor is at once struck by Vincentís alertness. Gachet hopes his restful house will be a refuge and that the company of his two children, Paul and Marguerite, will have calming influence on Vincentís mental maladies. Certainly the artistís presence in Auvers will be stimulating to them all.
Thus begins a complex, multi-faceted friendship between doctor and artist, a friendship that will characterize much of Vincent Van Goghís place in history. As a patient Gachet finds Vincent intriguing; as an artist he finds him formidable. Heís astonished at Vincentís technical mastery, his stoical approach to his illness, and his quick enthusiasm for his treasured paintings.
It is this profound genius that Wallace so brilliantly encapsulates: the fleeting moods of happiness and affection where Vincent is often depicted as a tender creature, full of hope and delight yet plagued by dark, anguished spells that Gachet is convinced are caused by accumulated nerve strain. Certain he is some kind of savior, only through his art can Vincent express important truths about the nature of life. The links between Vincentís genius and his melancholy both thrills and scares Gachet. It comes as no surprise that Paul and Marguerite are increasingly enchanted by this strange, volatile man who becomes an unmistakable figure in Auvers with his shambling gait, battered boots, and coarse straw hat.
Like the landscapes that Vincent so beautifully paints, the novel is bathed in color and light, the author artfully depicting the delicate beauty of the sun and the shadows of the wheat fields
- dark gold, bright and infinite with their tones of ocher and yellow set off by a brilliant blue sky. The true part of Vincentís genius was that he could absorb so much about the very nature of a subject from appearance alone.
Death beckons, driving Vincent to the very edge of desolation, and Gachet can do little to prevent the inevitable. Wallace reveals the yawning and more troubling insecurities of Gachet, a man who spent his life suffering for other peopleís ills. Vincent discerns his friendís grief despite his obvious physical fragility. Wallace captures the essence of both men, a tender, affectionate friendship ineffably bound by beautiful art and a shared, compassionate understanding.