At the height of his prolificness, Vincent Van Gogh suffered severe episodes of depression and self-harm. Worried for his safety, Van Gogh’s brother committed him to a pastoral asylum in Saint-Remy, France, where he painted voraciously and did his best to heal. Inspired by this footnote in history and by paintings in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum which originated in Saint-Remy, Susan Fletcher found a seed of a story.
“Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew” is the fictional account of Jeanne Trabuc, wife of the asylum’s warden and a woman much-muted by life and love. Jeanne hears of ‘the painter’s’ arrival and is immediately, inexplicably intrigued by him. Against her husband’s explicit instruction, Jeanne seeks Vincent out, develops a quiet camaraderie with him, and finds her spirit awakened by his presence and his art.
“He throws paint against canvas, gives orders. He has buried nothing, and what Jeanne feels when she’s with him is that all her own impatience – her quickened heart and her wanting of things – is waking up after so long a sleep. Stretching itself.”
Jeanne’s is a story of a woman whose spirit has been tamped down; marriage, motherhood, and a sequestered, rural existence have changed Jeanne from a carefree girl who walks on her hands and climbs trees to a silent woman who labors in solitude and rarely speaks her mind. Through Jeanne, Fletcher offers several beautiful insights into the transformative and often overwhelming role of motherhood.
“A quarter of her is always with Jean-Charles or Laurent or Benoit; only the last quarter is here in Saint-Remy. It’s part of motherhood’s truth – that to release a little life into the world means that part of you runs with it, totters in its wake.”
“She stopped being Jeanne; she became Maman, and loved the name – I do, I do – but with it came a lack of sleep and loss of time and a draining of herself that no one ever saw.”
Now in middle age and inhabiting an empty nest, Jeanne finds herself in a quiet crisis. There is something about Vincent – the artist and the man – that gives off a spark. Suddenly, Jeanne feels herself re-emerging and wanting desperately to be seen.
“‘There’s life in painting,[‘ Vincent says,’] I know there is. It fills my veins. It opens my eyes so that I can see most clearly with a brush in my hand. But there’s life in being painted too. When I painted the postman’s wife in Arles she wept afterwards and thanked me, and what if a patient felt the same way?'”
Susan Fletcher’s “Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew” is an endearing look at the interior life of a person, particularly a woman, and at how love and marriage change over time. Fletcher’s perspective and plot are refreshing; she chooses not to write of ‘new’ love, but ‘renewed’ love. Her novel is romantic without being a romance, historical while timeless. A wonderful end-of-summer read that lingers in the mind’s eye like one of Van Gogh’s striking sunflowers.
Thank you to Virago for the complimentary copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.