The premise for this novel is fascinating. Van Gogh’s sister-in-law kept a diary, which sits on a library shelf, inaccessible to researchers. Johanna Van Gogh was newly engaged when Vincent cut off his ear and his descent into active madness occurred during the short time of her marriage. When Vincent succeeded in killing himself, her husband, Theo, also descended into madness, during which he tried to kill her and their infant son. Theo was an art dealer who championed Vincent’s work and that of the Impressionists. Upon his death, Johanna took up the cause of establishing Vincent’s legacy, even though this meant cutting herself off from most of her family and struggling to support herself and her son by maintaining a boarding house in which she exhibited Vincent’s work. She received support from another artists, Johann Gottschalk, who eventually became her second husband.
Cooperstein tells Johanna’s story through factionalized letters and diary entries that she has imagined after researching the actual letters and sources about the lives of the Van Gogh brothers and the artists around them.
It’s a quick read and a fascinating look at an oft-eclipsed key figure in the history of modern art and the struggle for women’s rights in the Netherlands.