Where crazy meets brilliance: “Leaving Van Gogh: A Novel” by Carol Wallace

September 25, 2012 at 4:53 pm 2 comments

“Leaving Van Gogh” by Carol Wallace, Published in 2011

First and foremost, thank you to Diane at Bookwinked for this recommendation.  This book was tragically sad but well written and worth the read.

In the late 1880s Vincent van Gogh moved to the French town of Auvers-sur-Oise to try to rest and repair his mental health instead he ended up committing suicide.  While in Auvers, Vincent was under the medical care of Dr. Gachet who specialized in mental illness.  Wallace uses Dr. Gachet as the narrator to exam this tragically sad but artistically brilliant period of Vincent’s life.

Dr. Gachet is first approached by Vincent’s brother Theo, who was an art dealer in Paris.  Theo was seeking a place for Vincent to recover after his release from an asylum in Saint-Remy.  Theo knew that Gachet was a supporter of the arts and that he had medically cared for painters, including Camille Pissaro. Gachet agrees to be at Vincent’s disposal and essentially act as his personal physician in Auvers.

Vincent and Gachet become, in a way, kindred spirits. Vincent spends a significant time with Gachet’s family and paints not only Gachet but also his daughter.  Gachet still suffers from grief and guilt over his wife’s death.  Vincent is able to perceive Gachet’s brokenness and paints him in a way that shocks Gachet into the realization that perhaps he, himself, is not the picture of mental health.Through-out Vincent struggles with bouts of mental illness and is continually frightened that his mind will continue to deteriorate or that his previous episode (of cutting his ear and blacking out) will repeat itself.

The reader has the advantage of knowing from the beginning that Vincent kills himself. But Wallace is able to imagine how Vincent may very well have felt with the knowledge that his mental instability could result in him hurting others and becoming an even greater burden on his brother.  This perspective and Vincent’s dialogue with Dr. Gachet makes the fact that he killed himself seem like one of his more sane and grounded decisions.

All that said, Wallace does seem to have a pacing problem.  At times the writing is engaging and interesting but then Wallace seems to get lost in throwing in Gachet’s memories and studies of mental illnes which are, frankly, not necessary.  As a reader I wanted a lot more information about Vincent and less about Gachet. That said Wallace’s writing shines when she is describing Vincent’s paintings and the settings that inspired him.  She also addresses the issue of whether madness and art go hand in hand. Begging the question if you heal the mental illness can the artist still create?

Self-Portrait, Spring 1887, Oil on pasteboard,...

Self-Portrait, Spring 1887, Oil on pasteboard, 42 × 33.7 cm., Art Institute of Chicago (F 345). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other reviews to check out:

From Vulpes Libris 

From the Lit Bitch

From American Girls Art Club in Paris 


Entry filed under: September 2012 reads. Tags: , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. dianeledet  |  September 26, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    So happy you read this book! I enjoyed your review!

    • 2. Emily C  |  September 26, 2012 at 10:14 pm

      You always have great recommendations! Thank you!


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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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