marginalia || Sunflowers, by Sheramy Bundrick

I would like to thank this book for getting me out of that dreadful reading fatigue—and right in time for the weekend! I realize that as soon as I write about the fact that I can’t seem to read, something pops up and lets itself be read. Huh. Anyhoo:

I admit that I started out reading Sheramy Bundrick’s debut novel Sunflowers expecting to like it—and, given one or two bumps along the way, I ultimately did. I’m a sucker for historical novels that concern artists—it gives me dork-glee to bust out art books for illustrative reference. Heck, take the art-dork in me further: I like reading about artists. And so a reconstruction of one of the most known icons of art—a romantic reconstruction at that—was sure to suck me in. And it did. (Also, Van Gogh’s yellow-on-yellow sunflowers painting, printed on a postcard, was my last Moleskine’s bookmark.)

Sunflowers is, as the subtitle tells us, a novel about Vincent Van Gogh. To be more accurate, it’s a novel about the love between him and Rachel Courteau. And it’s basically doomed love. What do you get when you pair a down-on-her-luck prostitute with a down-on-his-luck artist? And in 19th century France? Doomed love, I tell you.

We know all about the mythos of Van Gogh—how troubled he was; how plagued by a disorder that’s still under debate by scholars these days (hell, even I tried to diagnose him while reading this book); how (and this is something that strikes fear into the hearts of many an artist) he lived in genteel poverty and artistic obscurity, his work receiving recognition only after he’d died. It’s a myth difficult to shake off: Vincent Van Gogh is, essentially, a tragic character. Very bohemian, in the romanticized connotation of the word. Idealized in some circles—dude is an icon for the struggling artist, a consolation to those who just can’t get a break. How many times have I heard, “It doesn’t matter much—I could be a Van Gogh for all they know”? [Which is sad. Just saying, friends.]

What was admirable about Bundrick’s novel was that she was able to create a Van Gogh that added to our usual perceptions of the artist—and, dare I say, effectively veered off from them. Sunflowers’ Vincent is disarmingly shy, charming and awkward. He had me going Aww several times, to the consternation of my boyfriend who kept asking, “But aren’t you reading about Van Gogh?” He’s a sweetie, that Vincent. Yes, he was unbalanced, he had problems, yes he eventually cut his ear off—but they were more tragic in light of what a great man he was whenever he wasn’t in one of his crises. It was unexpected, how Vincent was written—I had expected Angsty McAngst, and so I commend Bundrick for not laying it on thick (given how heartbreaking his fate already actually was).

And Rachel. Not much is known about Rachel, factually—and what we do know, according to the Author’s Note at the end of the book, are vague, even contradicting. The novel is in Rachel’s POV, and it’s Rachel life tangled in those two years with Vincent. She’s this odd mix of naïve and stubborn, with a seemingly infinite well of love and patience that could only come from lurve.

You detect some cynicism? Sorry. I mean, that was my tiny complaint about the book: because Rachel was so in love with Van Gogh, so hopelessly devoted to him, that their whole relationship was romanticized and idealized. Children: poverty—even artistic poverty—isn’t a very nice thing. Trust me: terrible times when you’re not selling paintings, and you find yourself looking around the apartment for something to sell or pawn just to feed yourself. Trust me. Huh. Yes, I know it’s supposed to be romantic, that it was a fact that Van Gogh was the way he was, that this is what’s supposed to happen in 19th century France between these two star-crossed lovers. But it often took on the quality of a dark fairy tale seen through hazy, lovestruck lens.

That’s why I very much appreciated that “ear incident”—which was sweet, haha, sorry!—and Van Gogh’s stints in the asylum, and all the other difficult episodes in this couple’s life. I would have wanted Rachel to look up—even just once—from scrubbing the floor and think, “Hell, I love this man, but my life kinda sucks right now.” I’m all for love, but I like reality too.

[And, since we’re confessing, other terrible things I will admit to: 1) I giggled whenever it was mentioned that Van Gogh ate his paints—I know this is a serious thing, but I can’t help but imagine my own boyfriend (he’s an artist) with paint tubes stuck in his mouth. Sorry! 2) If said boyfriend ever got those “artist’s fits”—as Vincent placatingly describes his crise to Rachel—I would hit him on the side of the head and say, “Suck it up.” But I have a black heart. Again, sorry.]

But I’m just bitching. I liked the novel, loved this new Vincent, liked Rachel well enough, loved the secondary characters that littered it—in particular, Van Gogh’s brother Theo, and Gauguin was such an asshole I had to put the book down and fume. I admired how I could feel that the research the author underwent was put to good use—never stuffily academic, with enough creative liberties taken in it to produce an enjoyable historical novel. I look forward to reading more of Sheramy Bundrick’s novels (this is her first!)

Yes, I enjoyed reading Sunflowers. But you know what I longed for? Pictures, haha. But I did enjoy digging through my boyfriend’s art books, and looking up the paintings talked about in the novel. However, P. isn’t much of a fan of Van Gogh, so I had little to go on—but I’ll definitely read more of Van Gogh’s life. Some fact-checking, yes, but really, just to assuage the fascination sparked by this novel. (Van Gogh’s letters, here I come.)

And, these comments are for us odd booklovers: 1) That cover is amazing. Not only the image (yes, that’s gorgeous), but my copy was matte, and I love them matte-surface books. 2) The pages smelled good. I don’t know if my book smells the same as all of yours, but when I got this book, it smelled good. Just saying.

Okay, now I’m just babbling. Happy weekend!

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9 comments

  1. Sounds like an intriguing book. I know nothing about Van Gogh except the ff.: he cut off his ear, he’s a painter. I’ll pick this up, it sounds so intriguing!

    1. Please do! It’s a generally well-loved book (Google it, haha), and the novel elaborates on what we already know about him, and puts it in a really heartwarming (and heartbreaking) context.

  2. I got this book over winter break but have yet to read. I’m really looking forward to it now!

    1. Yay–I can’t wait to know what you think about it, once you’ve gotten around to reading it. :)

  3. I love Van Gogh. Just went to see an exhibition of his yesterday, and was mesmerised by his works, and how they’ve evolved. Am reading The Yellow House at the moment, after which I was going to check this out.

    You make it sound pretty amazing, so thanks!

    1. Thank you! You have to know that I envy you for having seen his artwork. That’s just wonderful. :] And, this novel has made me want to check out more of Van Gogh’s life–The Yellow House has been added to my wishlist, so I’ll be checking in to see what you think about that.

  4. I just picked this up from Barnes & Noble on saturday. Great review! I love books about artists too. I’m really looking forward to Claude and Camille about Monet :)

    1. Oh gosh, thanks Holly for bringing Claude and Camille to my attention! I’ll be keeping my eye out for that. And have fun with Sunflowers! :)

  5. […] When I did my review of Sunflowers: A Novel of Vincent van Gogh (Sheramy Bundrick), Holly brought the novel Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell to my attention. And I was ExcitedPants. […]

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