Title: Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers
Author: Deborah Heiligman
Genre(s): creative non-fiction, historical, middle grade
Length: 454 pages
Published: April 18, 2017
While I have a weakness for beautiful book covers, the cover alone is rarely enough to make me pick up a book when I don’t know about the story inside—but Theo and Vincent: The Van Gogh Brothers had been staring at me from my local library’s shelf for months, drawing my eye with its beautiful blue, impressionist cover art, and since the title was rather straightforward, I decided to snatch it up and save it for when I needed a break between longer reads. It sat at home on my shelf for a while before I picked it up in August, and for a little while longer, I lingered in the first section, making slow progress. It wasn’t a hard read by any means—it’s middle-grade historical fiction, after all—but my mind wasn’t at a place to absorb the story just then. But, once I did switch into the correct mode of thinking, I flew through the pages.
As stated, the title is direct: Vincent and Theo is a creative take on the relationship between famous Dutch post-impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh and his younger brother, Theo Van Gogh, whose life and influence in Vincent’s life has generally been untouched in mainstream stories. Heiligman draws from over 600 letters from the brothers (as well as others, such as family, friends, and coworkers) to paint a picture of their tumultuous yet close-knit relationship, from the time they were children in a little Dutch town to the final years when they lived in France.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as style when I picked up Vincent and Theo, though I figured it wouldn’t be overly complex since the book is marketed as middle-grade. Nevertheless, Heiligman’s style surprised me, and because I hadn’t read anything like it before, took me a while to sink into the rhythm of her prose (which is perhaps while reading this book was slow-going at first). Here’s an example from page 111:
“On August 10, 1879, Theo arrives in the Borinage.
The brothers take a long walk together.
Theo, the art dealer, hoping soon to move to Paris.
Vincent, the erstwhile evangelist, now loving with a baker, spending his time drawing.
Vincent takes Theo for a walk near an old mine called Petite Sorciére, little witch. It has fallen into disuse. Vincent has been eager to show Theo the stark beauty of the area; later he hopes to show him the drawings he’s been making.
But as they walk through the bleak countryside, Theo reminds Vincent of the time they walked together near the old canal to the Rijswijk mill. It has been seven years.”
This passage showcases what was unusual to me about Heiligman’s style: the direct language, short sentences, sometimes sentence-long paragraphs, and short chapters. The brevity of the style is a far departure from my usual classics or even nonfiction works—but, though it was hard to settle into at first, I don’t consider it a negative that the book is written in such a way. The brief sentences nearly mimic the impasto brushstrokes present in many of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings (think the swirling skies in “Starry Night”): each small stroke, layer upon layer, builds into a fuller picture, capturing the important essence of a landscape, a room, an object, a color palette, yet hinting that there is much about the reality of the scene that cannot be captured. That is much like the primary sources that Heiligman drew upon to write this book—no matter how many letters are available, or how many paintings and drawings remain preserved, they only give us an impression of the full life that Vincent and Theo lived. Perhaps that was Heiligman’s reason for writing that way. Regardless, though not the most elegant prose, and though at times the style felt repetitive, it worked well for the genre and story.
In addition to the prose style, Vincent and Theo has a unique and, I think, fun chapter organization: the book is divided into “galleries,” in addition to an entrance, entresol, and exit, which mimics the floor plan of an art gallery. I thought this was incredibly clever and worked well in grouping the sections of their lives together into understandable and manageable parts.
As expected, Vincent and Theo focuses on Vincent and Theo—not just their individual lives, but how their friendship grows throughout the years, overlapping more and more despite the increasing difficulties that each man faced. Heiligman does a good job at showing the brothers’ personalities: Vincent, who is passionate, extroverted, able to befriend others quickly, but also moody, prone to both anger and depression, unconventional, and sometimes even ascetic; and Theo, who is more stable, quieter, more introverted, a lover of new art and the city but also prone to bouts of illness and general spiritual and moral unmooring. Heiligman also does a good job of not idealizing either of the Van Gogh brothers (or anyone else, for that matter)—for all of the good traits they possess, they also possessed many bad ones, which caused strife amongst their siblings and parents and led them to periods of desperation, mental illness, physical illness, and poor decision-making.
I always took the book’s depictions of characters with a grain of salt because everyone described was, in fact, an historical person, and even the most studious of historians cannot be completely sure that they understand a person from the past—not to mention that modern sensibilities or personal beliefs can easily taint our interpretation of the past. Nevertheless, as someone who doesn’t know much about either Van Gogh (yet), I thought that Heiligman did a fair and compelling job bringing the people of the story to life.
The plot of Vincent and Theo is rather loose. In fact, the story follows more of a timeline than a plot, beginning with Vincent and Theo’s early life in the 1850s and spanning until their deaths in the 1890s. Considering that the book is more of a creative biography than anything else, I didn’t find this surprising or bothersome (even though I love a good plot structure). The only qualm I had about the “plot” of the book is that certain sections felt repetitive or like not much was happening—but I think that’s a result of the timeline being based upon reality, since there were periods in both Vincent and Theo’s life where they were confused, ill, or stalled career/relationship-wise. Some readers may grow tired of that element but it didn’t significantly bog down the story when I read it.
So many individual settings are visited throughout the book—from little towns in the Netherlands to huge cities like London and Paris to the countryside in France and Belgium. Keeping in theme with the style of the book, the setting is not painted in very clear or concrete terms, yet the descriptions are still vivid enough that they come alive as the story progresses. This is especially true when it comes to reoccurring settings, like Theo’s apartment in Paris or Zundert, the small Dutch town where Vincent and Theo grew up (which remained dear in both of their memories), and a sense of place is also established through the author’s descriptions of Vincent’s paintings (which are included during the time periods in which they were created). Additionally, since the focus of the story is more on Vincent and Theo themselves, the author’s way of establishing setting works well to that end, and a style that lingered more on setting descriptions would have taken away from the main focus.
Because of the prose style, all objectionable content is never lingered upon excessively or described in lots of detail—though, because of the subject of the book and its historical accuracy, it is still present. Most notably, Vincent struggled with mental health issues throughout his life and especially as he grew older. There are multiple mentions of self-harming behavior/violence (such as his ear being cut off), suicide attempts (such as eating poisonous paints), institutionalization, and actual suicide (though alternative theories to Vincent’s cause of death are presented, the alternative theory is also violent, since Vincent died from a gunshot wound). Characters other than Vincent also deal with mental health issues (for instance, Theo is institutionalized at the end of his life). At least three characters are said to visit brothels and prostitutes; STDs are discussed multiple times. In one section, a few characters drink alcohol (specifically, absinthe) excessively, which leads to drunken arguments and violence. One of the real-life drawings that is included in the book depicts a naked woman, though the art isn’t explicit in any way.
Once I finished Vincent and Theo, I felt conflicted over how to rate it. My actual enjoyment level was perhaps at a 3—it was an easy read, informative, and intriguing, yet I wasn’t left with that lingering feeling of otherworldliness or affection that comes when one finds a book that speaks to the soul. And while I think that Heiligman did a fair and balanced job when taking creative liberties with history, there was always a part of me that was cautious, wondering how much was creative and how much was true. In particular, when religion and Christianity were discussed, I was never certain if the sentiments expressed were those of Vincent/Theo or how the author, who probably is not religious, interpreted their religious upbringing or later beliefs (or even lack thereof). How can one be certain, unless primary sources are read? Even modern understanding of religion can taint the reality of what people at that time believed or did. Yet, despite these qualms, I spent a good deal of time reading up about the Van Goghs, adding nonfiction books about Van Gogh to my TBR list on Goodreads, and admiring Vincent’s artwork once I finished reading. The book may not have left me with that sense of love like The Brothers Karamazov or The Romanov Sisters did, but it did spark curiosity, and that is a definite strength. Because of these things, I settled on a rating of 3.5/5 for Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers.