Monday, March 23, 2009

Review: Johanna by Claire Cooperstein

Johanna van Gogh worked tirelessly after her brother-in-law Vincent's death to help establish his reputation as a pre-eminent artist. Without her, his work would likely have faded into obscurity or worse yet, destroyed. And yet she promoted van Gogh's work entirely out of love for her late husband, who succumbed to mental illness and died (of syphilis) not long after his much loved older brother's death. Cooperstein has imagined Johanna's diary and letters as it might have told the story of her brief marriage to Theo van Gogh and her subsequent quest to find the fame he had worked for so diligently on his brother's behalf. There is an actual diary written by Johanna but the van Gogh family has refused all requests by authors and historians to view it. Cooperstein has created a credible character in her Johanna, showing her frustrations, sorrows, and joys, before and during her marriage and subsequent long widowhood as well as in her second marriage. There are known historical details peppered throught this mostly epistolary novel (Johanna continues to write letters to her late husband as a means of communicating with him--really just as a way to clarify her own thoughts) and while the bulk of the novel deals with the seemingly insurmountable hurdles to having van Gogh recognized as the brilliant avant guarde artist he was, we also see the gathering political clouds over Europe. Cooperstein's Johanna is a progressive and strong woman as the real Johanna must have been to have perservered in her causes, both for van Gogh's art and for womens' rights. This was an interesting book and illuminated a story I hadn't realized existed behind van Gogh's art. My biggest quibble with the book was the frankness of the discussion of sex by Joahnna's second husband when writing to his father. Perhaps this was indeed a cultural thing, as he himself notes in his letter, but it seemed gratuitous, and honestly out of place, in this novel. Other than a few bits like this, though, an enjoyable read. Perhaps someday, we'll be allowed to see the contents of Johanna's diary and we can see how well and closely portrayed Cooperstein's Johanna is. In the meantime, Cooperstein's Johanna is worth spending some time with: passionate, devoted, and determined.

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