The drama is muted, but van Gogh’s mix of genius and madness continues to fascinate.

LEAVING VAN GOGH

Wallace, who has written 20 mostly humorous or lightweight books since she co-authored The Official Preppy Handbook (1980), enters the realm of historical fiction with this novel about Vincent van Gogh.

Like Alyson Richman in The Last Van Gogh (2006), Wallace concentrates on the artist’s last days and his involvement with the family of Dr. Gachet. The basic facts are known: Van Gogh spent his last 70 days in Auvers painting a huge number of works before he shot himself; while in Auvers he spent considerable time with Gachet, a widower with two children, Marguerite and Paul. While Richman focused on Vincent’s relationship with Gachet’s daughter Marguerite—whose portrait he painted as well as Gachet’s—Wallace has Gachet narrate. According to him, he has always befriended painters, amassing an impressive collection of impressionist paintings, and dabbles in painting and etching himself. Vincent’s brother Theo, who supports Vincent, employs Gachet to watch over the artist. Gachet quickly recognizes the brilliance of Vincent’s work. When Vincent’s erratic behavior flares, Gachet suggests a “cordial” to soothe him, but Vincent tells Gachet that he must paint to keep sane. Both Marguerite and Paul grow obsessed with Vincent and follow him around. Vincent thinks of Marguerite only as a subject to paint. He becomes furious at Paul when Paul’s dog destroys one of his paintings. After Theo comes to visit with his wife and baby, Gachet realizes he has advanced syphilis. But Theo’s financial responsibility to his family drives him to keep working as an art dealer even as his health declines. Learning of Theo’s condition, Vincent becomes unable to paint. Without painting he has no wish to live. Gachet, still guilty that he refused his consumptive wife’s plea to help her die years earlier, decides to help Vincent by leaving his loaded gun where Vincent will find it.

The drama is muted, but van Gogh’s mix of genius and madness continues to fascinate.

Pub Date: April 19, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6879-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: Dec. 30, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2011

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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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