Johanna: A Novel of the Van Gogh Family

Claire Cooperstein, Author
Claire Cooperstein, Author Scribner Book Company $22 (272p) ISBN 978-0-684-80234-3
Reviewed on: 05/29/1995
Release date: 06/01/1995
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Dedicated to ``all the women whose accomplishments have been forgotten,'' this assemblage of letters and journal excerpts, nearly all of them fictional, tells the story of Johanna Bonger-van Gogh, the young widow who preserved and promoted the legacy left by her brother-in-law, Vincent van Gogh. Anticipating a Christmas season filled with the gala celebration of her betrothal to Theo van Gogh, Johanna is dismayed when her fiance rushes to Arles to be with his brother, who has just cut off his ear. Though Johanna doesn't yet realize it, a sinister pattern has been established in which every important event in her marriage (from engagement through childbirth) will be mirrored by a desperate, anguished action on Vincent's part. Six months after the painter's suicide, Theo, in the final stages of syphilis, dies in an insane asylum, leaving Johanna with only limited resources (besides an attic full of van Goghs classified by others as ``minor household decorations'') with which to support their children. Refusing to return to her parents' home, the staunchly independent Johanna runs a boarding house, gets involved with Holland's nascent feminist movement, remarries and nearly single-handedly brings Vincent's artwork the recognition it deserves. As well as fleshing out the life of a hitherto obscure woman, Cooperstein does a fine job of conveying the giddy thrill of a world on the brink of modernism. At times, her apparent desire to educate interrupts narrative flow, as when Johanna declares in her journal, ``Naturally, I can't discuss brothels with Father, even though Holland's have been government-regulated for years.'' But these glitches detract little from this inspiring, often exhilarating account of a woman coping with adversity and going on to create a rich and satisfying life for herself. (June)
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