When I saw “The Last Van Gogh” by Alyson Richman at the bookstore I knew I needed to read it, and bought it right away. Van Gogh is my favorite artist and a novel about him sounded amazing. It ended up sitting on my bookshelf for a bit because I was saving it. I know it’s weird, but when I’m pretty sure I’m going to love a book I wait until I’m in a book slump to read it. Unfortunately, it did not work out well for me this time.
I am a big fan of historical fiction, I love the combination of real events with a worthy artist taking the time to weave words together in a way that high school textbooks never did. I love learning bits and pieces about history in this way, and although authors usually take liberties, the story is all the better for it. I’m honestly not sure how much research went into this novel, but it felt like Richman sat in front of a Van Gogh exhibit and read a short biography about his depression during his short life and called it research. Then sat down and wrote this with the idea of ‘what if he had an affair with the daughter of a doctor he sought out for treatment?’ The description of his works was detailed, but that’s not really what I would be looking for in a novel about Vincent Van Gogh and one of his many messy affairs. I do think when writing historical fiction that you are more likely to be successful if your main character is more your creation than based on a real person. When I realized this book was being told from the perspective of the daughter of Doctor Gachet, I thought this was a formula for an exceptional novel.
It’s a nice concept, but where it fell apart was in the delivery. Marguerite could have been an amazing character that was inspired by love to do something with her life, and for part of the novel, that is just what she seemed like she was going to do: “I did not want to end up like Mother…stoically sacrificing my passion only to end up dying with regrets. It was so easy to imagine myself with a similar fate and I found myself yearning to create a more satisfying ending…” (The Last Van Gogh, pg 203). Unfortunately, by the end of the novel it didn’t seem like Marguerite did much at all with her life. I found her unendingly frustrating. When we first meet her, she is a servant in her own household and forced to wait on her father and brother. We learn about how she is treated by her family and the dreams she has for her life, and how she wants to escape it all someday…and by the end of the novel she is still the same. She never escapes to the life she yearns for, but somehow finds satisfaction in the brief affair she has with Vincent? He takes her virginity and she’s done with adventure and her dreams? I just found the whole situation exasperating. When I finished the novel I just closed the book and thought that’s it? Really? It was so unsatisfying and it made Marguerite such a disappointing character.
Would I recommend this book? Eh, it was a decent enough read but was by no means a page-turner. I enjoyed it while it lasted, but I was disheartened by the end of the novel. This was one of those situations where I judged a book by its cover and was disappointed that the writing inside did not match my expectations. I doubt I would pick up anything else by Alyson Richman.