Sheramy Bundrick’s Sunflowers: A Novel of Vincent Van Gogh – A Review

sunThere is nothing easy about writing historical fiction. Once a writer adds art into the mix, the project becomes something entirely different as many artists, especially those like Vincent Van Gogh are not so easily defined. Furthermore, having the ability to blend factual art historical information with the fiction a writer creates, is difficult and can often produce novels that are more of a creation as opposed to a well-researched, factual backdrop with a fictional story also added for entertainment.

This, however, is not the case with Sheramy Bundrick’s Sunflowers. As an art historian and professor, Bundrick brings to the table a strong set of skills and research that are more than evident in her fictional retelling of the final two years of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh’s troubled life. She recounts with some liberty, the time that the struggling artist spent with a young woman named Rachel – the very same lady that would be presented with a fragment of his ear.

Rachel Corteau

In reality, there is nearly nothing that has survived in history about the real Rachel, other then a document that lists her name, address, occupation and that she was the woman Van Gogh asked for at the brothel to present her with a piece of his ear. Other artists such as Bernard and Gauguin mention Rachel in their writings and letters only in passing, referring to her as the “cafe girl” or “a wretched girl” respectively.

Irregardless of the reality of the factual, historical relationship between Van Gogh and Rachel, Bundrick writes her story having imagined what it might have been like had there been a relationship between the two people while incorporating factual information regarding the time period and Van Gogh’s work.

Mixing Factual with Fantasy

Moreover, Bundrick creates this mixture of fantasy and art historical fact seamlessly. She captivates her readers from the very first page and does not let them go until they reach the inevitable end of both the novel and of Vincent Van Gogh. Her intricate descriptions make her readers feel as though they are part of the dingy cafe where Vincent and Rachel meet to talk, part of the garden where he draws her and even part of the city and busyness of the city of Arles as a whole.

Overall, Sheramy Bundrick’s work is captured best through Susan Vreeland, author of Life Studies, ” [Bundrick] lays bare in rich, compelling scenes the mystery of the turbulent and misunderstood final two years in Van Gogh’s life.” Sunflowers is a gem of a first novel and makes for an interesting glimpse into the mental decline of one of the world’s most famous artists.

Sunflowers – A Novel of Vincent Van Gogh by Sheramy Bundrick is available for purchase through Avon with ISBN 0061765279.

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Edging out the 9th spot on my 100 book challenge is Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist. I bought this book at Heathrow airport to read in 2014 when we were headed home from our big Euro-trip. I wound up being allergic to the person in front of me on the plane. I seriously still would like to know what kind of perfume it was…so, I wound up sleeping thanks to benadryl for the entire flight home. I never even opened the book.

And from there I moved around and it sat in my bookshelf and in a box for sometime, before I finally picked it up again this summer. I really wished I had read it sooner. I love the Netherlands. When I do go back to Europe, I want to spend a good chunk of time in the Netherlands, riding bikes and eating copious amounts of cheese. It’s one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

TheMiniaturist

In Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, we follow a young girl, Petronella Oortman, who is recently married to one of Amsterdam’s most well-off merchants, Johannes Brandt.  The two barely know each other and it becomes clear about Nella’s arrival that all is not what is seems in her new home. She has a sister-in-law who appears devout and overtly religious, a mix of servants that owe their lives to Johannes and a husband that has little interest in Nella as a wife.

It’s pretty easy to figure out almost immediately that Johannes is gay and pretty much only married Nella out of duty to give his family a proper facade. They do develop a friendship in their marriage, that for me, I felt was more about Nella constantly protecting her new family instead of herself. It was a good, quick read and it paced very well, with a lot of tension as well as suspense driving most of the book.

The ending however, had me wondering what the point of including the sub-plot of the miniaturist was? Outside of driving suspense for the novel, the ending really had her fizzle out without much reason as to why she had even been there in the first place. It was pretty interesting how she sent messages to Nell through the miniatures that she ordered from her for her doll house, but it is not even explained how the woman knew some of the things she warned Nella about or what her motivation for doing any of it was? I found her ending confusing at best.

I was really surprised to learn that this novel was based on real people: Johannes and Nella were a merchant couple, who married and lived in Amsterdam in the late 1600’s. Learning that, I thought it was a bit salacious to write the events of the novel as they were, seeing as there is no historical evidence of a sham marriage to hide a man’s homosexuality. And yes, there is even a real dollhouse that had inspired the author when it was on display at a museum:

Dolls__house_of_Petronella_Oortman

The dollhouse at the time, had cost the same as buying a real canal house in Amsterdam. Can you imagine that? So crazy! People like Peter the Great even attempted to buy it, but wouldn’t rise to the crazy price that the family was trying to sell it for.

This is definitely good for a quick summertime read. I’ve recently started the much controversial Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.