Sunday, May 1, 2011

"Leaving Van Gogh"

Carol Wallace is the author of numerous books, including The Official Preppy Handbook, which she coauthored. A graduate of Princeton University, Wallace received a M.A. in art history from Columbia University in 2006. The research for her M.A. thesis provided the foundation for Leaving Van Gogh, her first historical novel.

Wallace applied the Page 69 Test to Leaving Van Gogh and reported the following:
Leaving Van Gogh flunks the page 69 test in one really important way: Van Gogh does not appear, so in this respect it’s not representative of the rest of the book. Instead, we’re in the middle of a flashback to the mid-1850s, when Van Gogh is still a small child toddling around in the Netherlands.

What is happening, though, is pretty interesting. The novel is narrated by Dr. Paul Gachet, who was the doctor in charge of Van Gogh for the last two months of his life. As everyone knows, Van Gogh committed suicide. This might be construed to mean that Dr. Gachet failed; after all, he couldn’t keep his patient alive.

Page 69 falls in the middle of a scene describing Dr. Gachet’s medical training. He is serving as an extern (non-resident intern) at the women’s hospital called the Salpêtrière, in the wards full of mental patients. He has an artist friend named Amand Gautier who wants to draw the madwomen in the hospital. Gautier has made an impression on some of the patients because he came to the annual bal des folles or Madwomen’s Ball, dressed as a Roman legionnaire. With bare legs. (The bal des folles is fact, as are Gautier and Gachet, and even the painting of the madwomen.)

In this excerpt, Gachet is explaining Gautier’s presence to Laure, an older woman who lives at the Salpêtrière as a patient, though she previously worked there as a nurse. (Long-term patients and caregivers did switch roles from time to time.)
Laure’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t understand. We aren’t beautiful.”

“Perhaps you are beautiful in his eyes,” I suggested.

“He is certainly beautiful in ours!” She sniggered. “Don’t you remember that he was the king of the ball? The women loved seeing his legs! Now they will want to show him theirs!” She rocked with laughter, slapping her thigh. The coarse humor of a nurse? The lack of control of a madwoman? The former, I thought.

“Then no one will mind his presence here?”

“Oh, far from it, Doctor!” She chortled. “The more young men, the merrier.” She stood up to leave me. “They’re already calling him Jules César,” she said and walked away.
Would a reader picking this up be hooked? I can’t tell. I was more concerned with getting a grip on readers from the very beginning, hence the first sentence of Leaving Van Gogh: “I held Vincent’s skull in my hand yesterday.”

That seems a good bit catchier than page 69, I’m sorry to say.
Learn more about the book and author at Carol Wallace's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue