Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers

Before we get into Vincent and Theo, I want to acknowledge that the National Book Awards were announced on Wednesday evening and the winner for Young People’s Literature was Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree. I’ll be covering that one later in the season and I’ve been intrigued since before it was longlisted for the NBA. I’m adopted and […]

Before we get into Vincent and Theo, I want to acknowledge that the National Book Awards were announced on Wednesday evening and the winner for Young People’s Literature was Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree. I’ll be covering that one later in the season and I’ve been intrigued since before it was longlisted for the NBA. I’m adopted and periodically grumble about the lack of contemporary YA fiction with adopted protagonists. While I’m excited for the representation I’m also cautiously optimistic, as one usually is when faced with your identity as written by someone else. If you’ve already read Far From the Tree and have thoughts about its NBA win, let us know in the comments!

Okay, now back to those Van Gogh boys. I’ll confess that I can’t think about Vincent Van Gogh without hearing Don McLean sing “starry, starry niiiight…” or seeing Tony Curran’s eyes well up with tears in his brilliant portrayal of Van Gogh on Doctor Who. He is one of the most famous painters of all time and we all think we know who he was; brilliant, depressed, and unappreciated in his time. Deborah Heiligman challenges the conventional wisdom and offers a thesis of her own about Vincent: the story of Vincent is incomplete without the story of his brother, Theo.

Vincent and TheoVincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers, Deborah Heiligman
Henry Holt and Co., April 2017
Reviewed from final copy; 6 stars

Heiligman’s nonfiction account of the brothers Van Gogh has earned six stars. Of all the YA books with five or six stars, it’s the only nonfiction title which means, of course, absolutely nothing. But I point it out to show that in general, it seems that it’s harder for nonfiction to leave a dazzling impression on reviewers. So how has Heiligman done it?

First, the prose stands out from other nonfiction narratives because it’s in present tense. It takes a few chapters to realize that the entire book is going to continue in this fashion and I still haven’t decided if I enjoyed that particular choice. I admire it, for sure; using present tense makes the story feel intimate and timely, a handy shortcut to empathy for readers. Present tense also works because we need to be equally invested in each brother and the voice, when speaking in the present, reads more like it’s organically produced narration; these are scenes I happen to be observing rather than third person past tense, which feels more like someone telling you a story.

From the sentence-level, the writing is staccato. Short sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters, and short sections are the building blocks for the book that is structured as though it were a gallery exhibition of the Van Gogh brothers’ lives. The attention to detail with this framework is exquisite, but again, while I admire the craft, I’m not sure that it works for me as a reader. It makes for a tidy and somewhat zippy read but on reflection I wonder if this device is less of a unifying concept and more of a contrivance. Reading the author’s note in the backmatter leads me to believe that Heiligman was genuinely thoughtful in planning out the journey she wanted to take readers on so I’m more inclined to believe that it’s a clever detail that wasn’t always to my taste.

In terms of the story and characters–always a tricky thing to assess when we’re talking about real people’s lives–Heiligman doesn’t need to do anything fancy to generate narrative interest in the story of Vincent and Theo. Vincent’s struggle with mental illness is heartbreaking and Theo’s lifelong effort to support his brother is relatable even if a reader can’t personally relate to that situation. Their romantic and professional lives are given equal attention and the result is a complete portrait of two bright young men who died far too young. One surprising aspect of their lives (to me, anyway) was that Vincent did, in fact, receive praise and sold some of his work during his lifetime. He wasn’t popular, and he was deeply uncomfortable with the praise, but he wasn’t the completely misunderstood genius he’s often thought to be. At least one critic recognized that his work would go unappreciated by most for it’s simplicity and subtlety. The other astonishing information that Heiligman reveals is that the preservation and advancement of Vincent’s work is entirely due to Theo’s wife, Jo. Theo also worked to have Vincent’s work recognized  but he died shortly after Vincent. It was Jo who ensured that Vincent’s work would be seen. In this ending I was reminded of Hamilton‘s moving finale, where we shift focus on the woman who made this story possible. Sure, the fact that I thought of another work could mean that the ending is a tad derivative but no less impactful.

I would love to hear from any art scholars or historians with their take on Vincent and Theo. As you could probably guess, I’m not blown away to the point of squeeing but I’m highly, highly impressed. And I think the RealCommittee will have some interesting conversations about the craft of this one; it certainly merits at least that much. There’s still a ton that I haven’t even mentioned yet (the design is meticulously executed, for example). What do you think?

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