Sunflowers by Sheramy Bundrick
It is widely known that Vincent Van Gogh suffered from mental illness. If a person knows anything about the man, it’s that he cut off his ear for a woman. Who was that woman and why did Van Gogh do what he did? Sheramy Bundrick explores these questions in her first novel, Sunflowers. In her first novel, Bundrick looks at the last two years of Van Gogh’s life through Rachel, the brothel prostitute with whom Van Gogh has fallen in love. She is a young woman who has come to Arles, France after losing both of her parents. She ended up at Madame Virginie’s brothel. At 21, she was mourning her father and disillusioned with life. Then, she met an odd red-headed artist wearing a straw hat while escaping the openly cruel criticism of some local ladies walking in the park. Her life would never be the same.
This novel is an example of what I really love about Historical Fiction – in addition to filling in gaps in my knowledge, it makes me want to go and read more about the time period, event, or figure. I found over the course of reading this novel that I really didn’t know much of anything about Vincent Van Gogh. I knew that he made some beautiful and interesting paintings. I was excited when I first discovered that he and I were both Dutch, but decidedly less excited when I learned that he cut off his ear. I had no idea what might have inspired his work or how he lived. The author did a wonder job explaining at the end what is known versus where she made educated guesses or took literary license. She also provided the name, date, and current location of all of Van Gogh’s paintings discussed in the novel. Not only did I enjoy the time I spent with Rachel and Vincent in 19th century France, I spent time on the Internet looking up his paintings. Reinforcing the story with the visuals was a powerful experience for me.
I enjoyed the character Bundrick created in Rachel. It was believable that she would fall in love with Vincent despite all of the warnings she received and his reputation around town. He, like her father, was a teacher. Vincent may not have taught art, but he never left Rachel out when discussing his paintings. He explained why he chose certain colors or what he was trying to express through his work. As Rachel learns, so does the reader. As much as I could see that their relationship would most likely end badly, I could see his draw on her and any other open minded person. My one concern with the way she was written it was that she had more freedom to come and go as she pleased than I would believe possible. There were consequences for being a prostitute in Arles and, at the beginning of their relationship Rachel very nearly risked being expelled from Madame Virginie’s brothel, but I never got the sense of danger. Perhaps there were brothel owners out there who did not keep a vice grip on their prostitutes. I just found it somewhat convenient that she was able to come and go with Vincent as needed without constantly being scared of losing her position and all of the money she left in her room at the brothel. This is something that stood out to me, but it did not impact my enjoyment of the book.
Although told from the perspective of Rachel, this is a novel about Vincent Van Gogh and it is a lovely tribute to a gifted yet troubled artist. It was a touch sad, but that was not unexpected given the subject matter. The time spent researching Van Gogh’s paintings, especially those of the characters portrayed in the novel itself like the Roulin family and Dr. Felix Rey, was enriching. I am so glad that my husband’s selection of a sunflower bouquet for my birthday prompted me to pick it up when I did. It made for a great October weekend read. Even if you don’t have any sunflowers of your own at home, I would suggest this to anyone who loves both reading and art. It may even inspire you to head to the local florist to add a little beauty to your own life.
Thank you to Kendra at Avon for sending me a review copy of this novel.