Review: Sunflowers: A Novel of Vincent Van Gogh

I saw this book ages ago, and the cover grabbed me immediately. However, like so many books, every time I went to pick it up some other book ended up taking priority. Fortunately for me, I found a brand new copy of it on my library shelf not long ago.

Sunflowers, by first-time author Sheramy Bundrick, is the story of Vincent Van Gogh’s time in Arles, France. It begins when Rachel, a local brothel prostitute, escapes to a nearby park one afternoon and falls asleep in the garden. She awakens to find Van Gogh sketching her and shortly after, Van Gogh visits the brothel and strikes up a relationship Rachel. Their relationship is an intense one, and both of them find some of the peace and happiness they are searching for until terrible events threaten their happiness.

I don’t feel I can say too much about these events, but if you have a basic knowledge of Van Gogh (or quickly peruse Van Gogh’s Wikipedia page), you will know that his time in Arles, and his story, do not end well. You will also know that the character of Rachel is more or less fictional. Even knowing the outcome of the book and that Rachel is not necessarily real does not make this book any less of an enjoyable read.

Bundrick, who is an art historian and professor, has a wonderful grasp of Van Gogh’s paintings, and her imagining of the events surrounding the painting of each picture is like reading a beautiful story about each one, even if it may not necessarily be true. She covers many of his paintings, including some of his more famous paintings such as Sunflowers, Starry Night over the Rhône (my personal favorite) and Night Café in the Place Lamartine.

I had imagined his paintings to be sweet and calm and gentle, like he was with me. Not sinister and brooding like this. Bright colors shouted from the canvas – red walls, green ceiling, yellow floor – yet the mood in his café scene was anything but bright. The clock in th background read ten minutes after midnight, and most customers had gone home. Empty chairs and mostly empty glasses said they’d been there, but only dregs of absinthe and the dregs of society remained. Faceless figured hunched over tables; a pimp chatted up a whore. The billiard table sat ready, but no one was playing. Monsieur Ginoux stood there instead, staring out from the painting, and the gaslamps overhead watched too like unblinking eyes. The gay pink bouquet on the sideboard struck the only note of innocence, the only note of hope.

Sunflowers, page 29

Night Café in the Place Lamartine

The story is not without its problems. The entire book is told from Rachel’s first-person perspective. While this allows Bundrick to avoid certain muddy areas (for example this allows her to avoid entirely the difficulty of ascribing intent to certain key events) it does make for some rough writing at times. Later in the book Van Gogh leaves Arles for an extended time and Bundrick has to resort to a series of letters exchanged between Rachel and Van Gogh to fill us in on what happens to him. While seeing Van Gogh through Rachel’s eyes and his interactions with her is interesting, there are far too many times in the book where I found myself wanting to know less about Rachel and her life in the brothel and more about Van Gogh. This is actually a compliment to Bundrick’s, as her depiction of Van Gogh is so compassionate that I wanted to spend more time with him, “watching” him paint and seeing the beauty of the world through his eyes.

Starry Night Over the Rhône

Sunflowers was an interesting historical fiction read, and much better than so much of the historical fiction out there (and certainly it is nice to read some solid historical fiction that is not set in Tudor-era England). Bundrick is so good at describing the setting and people and social structure of late-nineteenth century Arles, describing it so richly that you could almost paint a picture from her words. (As an aside, Bundrick also includes a detailed Author’s Note describing changes and events that she moved around. Personally, I like and appreciate when the author acknowledges that they have fiddled with some of the historical details and where they have done so. She also includes a detailed list of the paintings she mentions and information about some of the key locations. All of this further led to my understanding of the time and place.) Most importantly, Bundrick’s description of Van Gogh lingered long after I ended the book – I felt terribly sad for this talented yet troubled man, and wished to know more about both his life and his paintings. Despite some small issues with the structure of the book, the fact that it stayed with me meant that I found the book to be an overall success.

Rating: B+

Details:
Sunflowers by Sheramy Bundrick
Avon, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2009
Paperback, 401 pages
Reviewed from library copy

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Review: The Toss of a Lemon

I recently finished Padma Vaswanathan’s terrific first novel The Toss of a Lemon, which I received some time ago from Random House. I would have to say that this has been one of the best books I’ve read recently.

This is the story of Sivakami, a Brahmin woman who comes to her husband’s house as a child bride in turn-of-the-century India. As foretold in their horoscopes, her husband passes away only a few years after their marriage, plunging her into widowhood at the age of eighteen. As is custom during that time and for a woman of her caste, she shaves her hair, clothes herself in a white sari, refuses all touch from sunup to sundown and removes herself from public life (for a widow is considered a bad omen). While she is considered a most devout widow, she breaks from tradition in one crucial way – she moves back to her husband’s house instead of remaining within her brothers’ household, maintaining the lands and wealth through a lower-caste assistant hand-chosen by her husband prior to his death. She does this for her son, to give him the secular education that he would not have had otherwise. This decision gives her bright but troubled son the direction he needs, but will ultimately set him on a path in complete opposition to that of his mother.

The book covers a broad period of Indian history (roughly 1890-1950s). The period was one of tremendous unrest, where the caste system in India began to break down. Historically Brahmins were considered the highest caste – the morally superior intellectuals. Leading up to independance and partition, their influence and wealth began to fade as the caste system began to break down (although, arguably, it is still in existence today).

One of the most difficult things about writing (or reading) anything historical is the tendency to look at customs or traditions through today’s North American standards. Far too often in historical fiction, characters speak or act in manners that would be wholly inappropriate for the time and place. Even more unfortunate, there is often a not-so-subtle rebuke in the author’s writing style – as though they will have the character act in a period-appropriate manner, yet still make it abundantly clear that they, as the author, do not agree with it. Perhaps the greatest strength of this book lies in Viswanathan’s ability to be non-judgmental about customs that were wholly typical of that time, such as child-brides, arranged marriages and the caste system. We see some of the characters moving away from these practices, but as a reader I never had the impression that Viswanathan agrees with either point of view or that she was siding with one character over another, rather that she was merely illustrating the social changes that occurred during that time period. The neutrality of her writing allowed me to more fully immerse myself in the story, to reflect on the practices and draw my own conclusions instead of constantly being reminded that many of the practices are considered wholly-inappropriate by today’s Western standards.

The story itself moves along at a good pace. At 600+ pages, this is not a short book, and yet I never felt that the story wasn’t moving. Despite the jacket copy, which lead me to believe the story is told only through the eyes of Sivakami, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book changes focus several times to other characters, as the story requires. Through each of these women’s eyes we see the subtle way that social change is altering the structure of their families and their caste traditions. Because the focus of the novel is on the story of the family first, and history second, this is not as heavy a novel as some historically based stories. The historical events are never so overt as to become confusing. That said, those readers with no historical background on the events in India around independence or partition or understanding of the caste system could find the book confusing, but I felt that Viswanathan subtly relayed any information that was an absolute necessity for understanding the story, particularly with regards to caste customs.

I only found two aspects of the novel disappointing. First, there were times in the book where I wished we had spent more time with a certain character to better understand their motives or reasoning, particularly in the case of Vairum, Sivakami’s son. Perhaps the book was already too long, or more likely it was deliberate. Like in any family, we are left to wonder at another’s words or actions, seeing them as an enigma. That said, we are often given subtle hints or clues as to the cause of a character’s behaviour. The best example of this would be Sivakami’s son-in-law, who we can only infer from his behaviour and from our modern understanding that he likely has some disorder such as ADD or mania.

My other issue was the rather abrupt ending to the book. While I understand that as the story of a family, that there may not be a specific end to the story per se, I wish that the last chapter and epilogue had been handled a little differently. I found the last page of the last chapter particularly choppy, as though Viswanathan and her editor had difficulty in nailing down a final sequence of events that felt climactic enough to be an ending while still reflecting that this was a family with a story that would continue long after the final page.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book. Despite my disappointment with the ending the book stands on its many other strengths. Particularly, the writing is excellent and highly evocative of the time and place. Reading it I could almost believe I was there, something I find occurs all too rarely in historical fiction. I am looking forward to Viswanathan’s next novel, and hope that her sophomore effort builds upon the foundation she’s laid here.

Grade: B+

Reviews: The End of East and The Outcast

(Not so) recently I had the opportunity to attend an author reception for Sadie Jones, a first time author, with a fellow blogger. While I was there, I mentioned to another attendee that I had planned on reviewing the guest of honour’s book, The Outcast, together with the book The End of East, written by first-time novelist Jen Sookfong Lee, which I had also recently read. I commented that I found the two novels similar in many ways, apart from the fact that they were both first books from new female authors, but that I felt that The Outcast, to be the far superior first effort. She seemed surprised that I found them similar novels and commented that that they were quite different, but in typical fashion for me I immediately found myself flustered, lost my train of thought and floundered as I tried desperately to gather my thoughts and not sound like a complete idiot. Of course, mere minutes later I could coherently organize my arguments for my position, but the moment had passed, and I never did find the opportunity to defend my position.

Lee’s novel is, loosely, the story of an Chinese immigrant family living inVancouver’s Chinatown. At a mere 243 pages, this is not a dense family epic, but rather several snapshots of the three generations of the Wong family as seen through the eyes of the not-so-dutiful daughter, Sammy Chan, who has returned home from her life in Montreal to take care of her aging mother. The story begins with the immigration of Sammy’s grandfather, Seid Quan, to Vancouver’s Chinatown, and his immense loneliness. It then follows the family as Seid Quan’s son, Pon Man, eventually joins his father in Canada and marries, and the lives of his wife and children.

I had mixed feelings about this book. As I read the book I couldn’t help but feel that Lee had taken a primer course on “powerful first novels” and “bright new voices” and had sought to put all of the elements of that type of novel into her book. Which is my verbose way of saying that the writing felt very forced at times, as though in Lee’s attempt, perhaps, to write “beautiful and compelling descriptions” she loses sign of what she was describing in the first place.

The way the drizzle stayed with her, soaked into her hair, her clothes, her sheets. It pushed itself onto her skin, huddled with her when she cried, remained cool even as she cooked at a blazing stove. Unshakeable. Like family.

The End of East, page viii

There were some parts of this book that were compelling, and the sense of loneliness and isolation shines through. I felt Lee really hit her stride when she describes Sammy’s mother’s (undiagnosed) postpartum depression. This passage was the portion of the book that struck me as the rawest, truest writing in the entire book:

It’s like a splinter, this feeling that she hates the baby so much that she would rather reach into its face and pull out its brains than take care of it for one more day. This hatred started days ago, and she thought she could hide it, control it by ignoring it and letting it fade on its own. But then it grew, attracting all the other evil feelings she has ever had about this house, this family, this country, even her own husband.

The End of East, page 141

That said, the tone of this novel is uneven at best, and the individual stories, snapshots if you will, are not connected well at all. Apart from some of the rather self-indulgent descriptions, I really felt that the single biggest failure of this novel though lies in the motivations (or lack thereof) of the daughter, Sammy. Her portions of the story are the weakest, with very little connection or explanation for her actions – actions I found inexplicable. As she is the primary narrator through which the story is told, this is a rather glaring weakness.

At first glance, Jones’ novel could not appear to be more different. It is the story of Lewis Aldridge, a young boy living in post-World War II England, and the devastating consequences for his entire family after a summer accident. It is a story of secrets and cruelty and hypocrisy and, ultimately love.

The story begins as a nineteen-year-old Lewis has just been released from jail, after spending a few years for an as-yet undisclosed crime. From there, the novel moves back in time to Lewis’ childhood, his father’s return from the war, and ultimately the accident that would take his mother’s life. We see Lewis’ life unravel as his father marries the young, flighty, and incredibly selfish Alicia.  and start the cascading chain of events that leads to the riveting climax.

Entwined with Lewis’ story is the story of the Aldridge’s neighbours (and Lewis’ father’s boss), the Carmichaels. Both families have secrets, and emphasis is placed on image and appearances and social niceties at all costs. None of the characters are likable, with the possible exception of the Carmichael’s daughter, Kit, on whom the novel ultimately hinges, but all are compulsively readable, as the novel rips through a cascading chain of events that leads to the riveting climax. (And that is not in any way reviewer-speak. It truly is a climax that lives up to the hype.)

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the book truly moves at a breakneck pace. Prior to writing this novel, Jones was a screenwriter, and her background is evident as the novel reads very much like a movie. In fact, there was a video trailer that was made for this book (it can be viewed here: http://www.rhgdigital2.co.uk/minisites/bookvideoawards/outcast.asp). While I generally don’t like trailers for books, I watched this trailer after reading the book and found it bang on to the descriptions in the novel. It was as though the novel was written at the outset with an eye to the possibility of a movie adaptation.

While I loved the flow of this book, I also found the writing to be well-executed and far more evocative than that of Lee’s novel. For example, this passage, following a Christmas time chat between Lewis’ father Gilbert, and Dicky Carmichael, his boss and neighbour, is a perfect example of the depth of understanding that Jones shows for the discrepency between exterior appearances and actions and private thoughts of her characters.

He teased out the conversation some more and wouldn’t go into detail about money, and Gilbert didn’t like him or the way he spoke or the way he stood there, but he took it, and he told himself how pleased he was, and gradually became pleased as the meeting drew to a close. It was a good deal and he was happy about it. He didn’t want to have to look at Dicky’s face any more and he wanted to take Lizzie home where she belonged and love her there. She was too good for any of them. She had her own way of looking at things. She was his and she was clever and lovely and he didn’t know what she saw in him, but he was grateful.

The Outcast, page 36

As I said, I found that there were similarities between the two books. Both are first novels from younger female novelists. Both books are stories of lonely, damaged people trying to find their way in the world. Both feature characters that are not inherently likable, and their sometimes unexplicable actions. However, where Jones excels at moving the story along, in drawing together multiple characters’ points-of-view and forming connections between jumps in time and narrator, Lee’s novel is substantially weaker in this respect leading to a disconnected, vignette feel to the nvoel. Where you get to the end of Jones’ novel and feel that you have read a story, Lee’s novel just, well, ends. All told, Jones’ novel is the better debut, and I have high hopes for her sophomore effort. Perhaps Lee will fare better in later novels, when her tone evens out, and there is less pressure to put forth a “daring and audacious first effort.”

Grades:

The End of East, C+
The Outcast, A-