Book Review: The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet by Sam Meekings

Hello Readers! Welcome to March (I hope it doesn’t get too mad around here)! As mentioned in Wednesday’s post, I’ll have a post up sometime next week talking about some things coming up here on the blog in March. This will be a bit different from the monthly goals posts I’ve been making, and I am eager to see whether it is a worthy replacement for it.

Today’s review is of a book that I have completely fallen in love with, but the review is difficult to write. Somehow, when a book means something very deeply, it seems more difficult to write about it than if my reaction to it were more moderate. The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet is one of those books. filligree page divider

Title: The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet

Author: Sam Meekings

Genre: Historical fiction, literary

Synopsis (from Goodreads): Who is that mournful man in the painting? The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet tells the story of Paul Ferdinand Gachet, the subject of one of Vincent van Gogh’s most famous portraits: one that shows what the artist called “the heartbroken expression of our times.” But what caused such heartbreak? This thrilling historical novel follows Doctor Gachet from asylums to art galleries, from the bloody siege of Paris to life with van Gogh in Auvers, and from the bunkers of Nazi Germany to a reclusive billionaire in Tokyo, to uncover the secrets behind that grief-stricken smile.

Challenges It Counts Towards: European Reading Challenge and 8 Foreign Countries (France)

Content Warnings: Some language, portrayals of death (realistic but not too in-depth), mention of suicide

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My Thoughts:

I knew from the first page that this book was going to be interesting. I did not, however, realize how deeply it would reach into my consciousness and make itself at home there. Ultimately, The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet is a masterful look at human psychology and history, mostly during the late 1800s. Although it is fiction, there is quite a bit of truth to the events and, more importantly, the message. While I don’t agree with everything Meekings asserts as truth (especially in the final chapter), his analysis is thorough and insightful.

Aside from a deeply intriguing look at the root of sadness, Meekings presents an engaging narrative of the life of Paul Ferdinand Gachet, subject of the most expensive painting ever sold. Van Gogh has received quite a bit of attention recently, but most of it has occurred on the periphery of my radar. I appreciate the way Meekings includes some of the painting’s history along with Paul’s story and the narrator’s. Three distinct timelines are woven together in alternating chapters, without jarring shifts from one to another: the dominant plot follows Gachet’s life from childhood to the verge of death, while the others trace the painting’s journey (backwards) and the author’s journey to writing the book. Each story line develops independently while adding depth and context to the others.

I thoroughly enjoyed the way Meekings inserts himself as both a character and narrator. The lines between fiction and fact blur, despite his insistence that he is (obviously) making up portions of Gachet’s life. As a reader, I am more willing to suspend reality than he seems to be, which is refreshing and at times a bit amusing. There are always going to be creative liberties taken when retelling the story of a famous person or cultural object, such as the painting. We cannot know for sure who said or thought what in every instance, and the author/narrator’s acknowledgement of this in candid, conversational language is appreciable.

This book does not work like any other I have read; it is on a level all its own, and truly a masterpiece of our day. The story is engaging and interesting, the history is detailed and fleshed out, and it takes a strong, analytical look at sadness both in one man’s life and in humanity as a whole. War, interpersonal relationships, mental health, and social issues are looked at. There is so much meaning to this book, but there is no simple phrase to sum it up. It is one of those you have to read for yourself to understand.

My favorite thing about this book is the writing. There are times where it is almost lyrical. As a general practice I do not underline or otherwise mark a book the first time I read it, but there are so many wonderful lines worth quoting that I almost couldn’t help myself. The next time I read this (which will no doubt not be too far in the future), I will do so with a pencil in hand. The language is clear, descriptive, beautiful…every good thing you could say about the way someone writes could probably be applied to this book. It is by far the best and most enjoyable writing I have read in a very long time, even without all of the other positive qualities the book contains.

The Verdict:

Read this book. It is deep, occasionally funny, engaging, historically interesting, and beautifully written. It is not light, but even if you are just looking for a good story, you will find it here. True, there are a few phrases which made me cringe, but this is such a raw and rewarding look deep into a historical figure and human condition that it is worth those moments. However, you should be aware of the heavy topics addressed before deciding to read this. If mentions of suicide, war, or descriptions of poor mental health are a problem for you, then this will most likely be a troubling book for you. Also, if looking intently at the concept of sadness could excessively affect your own emotional state, then I might recommend caution in reading this. On the other hand, I devoured this book pretty quickly, so if it grabs your interest as well as it did mine, you shouldn’t get bogged down in the negative. Really, even though this book looks at so many negative and painful topics, it does so in such a way that it conveys the importance without necessitating the reader be dragged into depression in order to comprehend the message. filligree page divider

If you share my affinity for meaningful literature, I hope that you will strongly consider reading The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet. Its influence cannot be contained in my words. In fact, the depth and nature of the psychological investigation remind me in part of J. D. Salinger’s work – which I do not say lightly, and should be taken as very high praise. Salinger and Meekings similarly look into the human mind through stories and cultural objects while maintaining a dialogue between reader and author which is rarely pulled off effectively.

Question of the day: What is the last book you read that had a profound meaning or impact on you?

Until the next chapter,


*I received a complimentary copy of this book and happily provided my review. All opinions expressed are my own.*

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