Monday, June 24, 2024

Editorial Book Review: Searching for Van Gogh by Donald Lystra #HistoricalFiction #ComingOfAge #EditorialReview #RecommendedReading #TheCoffeePotBookClub

*Editorial Book Review*

Searching for Van Gogh

by Donald Lystra

Award-winning author Donald Lystra brings us a wholly unique American heroine, Audrey Brubaker, a fierce young woman who combines the tenacity of Scarlett O'Hara with the charm of Holly Golightly.

It's fall of 1963 in a city in America's industrial heartland. Audrey Brubaker, rejected by her family and community but determined to build a life for herself, becomes the unlikely mentor to Nate Walker, a math and science prodigy who has turned to art in an effort to cope with the death of a revered older brother.

In a relationship that borders on love but never quite seems to get there, Audrey gives meaning to Nate's artistic aspirations, introduces him to life's hard edges, and helps him find courage. Together they set off on an ill-fated mission: to recover Nate's brother's body from a military cemetery in northern Michigan.

Along the way, secrets are uncovered and boundaries are crossed which will change Nate's life forever. But in a heart-wrenching ending, it is Audrey who will need to tap the well-spring of Nate's empathy for her own redemptive needs.

From the streets of a decaying rust-belt city to the pristine forests of northern Michigan, Lystra weaves a narrative that tugs at your heartstrings and compels you to reflect on life and its complexities. If you loved timeless classics like Ordinary People and To Kill a Mockingbird, this book is a must-read for you!

I began to think about Einstein's theory of relativity, which I'd studied last year, and which in one part had dealt with stars. The night sky you saw from earth, Einstein said, was actually something that existed long ago; the starlight having to travel through space for thou‐ sands of years before finally reaching a person watching on planet earth. And it seemed to me, there in the church parking lot, that if Einstein was correct then traveling out in space would bring you closer to the truth, closer to the moment when the light had started. And then I wondered if the same applied to memories, where you are also going back in time, and if the things you thought about in memory brought you nearer to the truth.

Nate Walker’s life undergoes a dramatic change when his older brother, Gary, unexpectedly dies during an army training exercise. Nate saw first-hand how their father relentlessly pressured Gary to enlist in the military, despite Gary’s reluctance. Nate is determined not to give his father that sort of leverage over his own life. Leaving home, he finds work and in his spare time finds solace in painting, just like his brother had with music. On an unassuming day, he meets Audrey Brubaker, a curious young woman who doesn’t conform to societal norms. Despite him not asking, she has a whole lot to say about the colours he picked for his latest painting! 

Audrey Brubaker is all alone in the world, but she is determined to make a success of her life one way or another. But she knows that without money there can be no future and so she must learn how to make friends and influence people. Could Nate be the friend she has been searching for? 

The exploration of love, desire, and grief is at the heart of Searching for Van Gogh by Donald Lystra. 

The story takes place in 1960s America and although the Mutual Assured Destruction ideology does play on the minds of the characters from time to time, for the most part, they do not think about a possible nuclear war as they are just trying to get through each day. The assassination of President Kennedy does have a profound impact on all of the characters in this book as it did in real life. The looming war in Vietnam hints at a future where Nate may have to forsake his true self and follow his brother’s example by becoming a soldier. The era is depicted with an authentic writing style that clearly reflects extensive research. There was never any uncertainty about the time period in which this story takes place.

Gary’s death has a profound and enduring effect on Nate. He harbours dreams for his future, much like his late brother, Gary, but unlike Gary, Nate is resolute in carving his own path, free from his father’s guidance. As a result, he departs from his home, acquires a job, and discovers a talent for painting. Nate is a protagonist who readers can truly rally behind and support. Nate’s endearing qualities extend beyond just being likeable; he is also genuinely kind. With the benefit of hindsight, Nate embarks on a journey to unravel the meaning behind pivotal moments from his past, especially his brother’s death. With new eyes, he has a deeper understanding of why events played out as they did. Nate’s character is depicted in such a sublime manner that readers can forge an instant connection with him. Nate’s narrative takes precedence, as readers are drawn into his transformative journey and captivating exploits.

Audrey has an enigmatic quality that adds to her character. She has endeavoured to leave behind a painful past and start afresh in life. Though not innocent, she is unquestionably vulnerable and completely alone, with no parental support her only true friend is Nate, if she has other friends they are not mentioned in this story. To earn a living, she takes inspiration from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and becomes an escort, a tour guide for rich businessmen, although this is without its dangers. Although her desire to belong is not reflected in her outward demeanour, she mentions Dale Carnegie and his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People several times, which suggests to the reader that she wants to have a normal and successful life. When she isn’t working, she sits in on classes at Kendall Design School, even though she is not a student and should not be there. With no parental support or funds for college, Audrey’s aspirations of being a furniture designer seem out of reach, and therefore she brings forth a great deal of sympathy from the reader.

Nate and Audrey’s shared deviation from societal expectations for their age group is a significant factor in their mutual attraction, although, for the most part, this attraction is not romantic. No judgment or accusations exist between them, allowing for authenticity in their interactions. More often than not, the gentle friendship they’ve formed is disrupted by reality. They both have to make a living, and they are both running from something that neither wants to face. One could argue that their relationship is a fleeting encounter, a momentary junction where their paths briefly align before veering apart. It is a coming-of-age story and one that is deeply enthralling.

Nate’s father is a complicated character and worthy of mention. Although the reader spends very little time with him, his influence is felt throughout the novel. He is very much the head of the family and therefore has a significant influence on his family’s affairs. This can be seen in both his treatment of his wife and that of Gary. His statements are treated as absolute law, and neither his wife nor Gary possesses the strength to challenge him which leads to some devasting consequences. While he frequently states that no mother should experience the loss of a child, he never takes any personal responsibility for Gary’s death. Nate’s relationship with his father is very different to that of his mothers and Gary’s. Nate refuses to be easily influenced by his father and decides to forge his own path. And although their relationship remains cordial there is a sense of disappointment from his father that Nate tries very hard to dismiss. The draconian parenting style might seem foreign to modern readers, and the evident lack of support for Gary is notable. Nevertheless, the author consistently reminds the reader of the vast differences between that time and the present.

The profound impact of grief is felt by all the characters in this book. The depiction of how grief affects them and how they cope with it shows a genuine understanding of the devastating impact of losing a loved one, whether it’s through death or estrangement. 

Searching for Van Gogh by Donald Lystra is an immensely enjoyable read and one that will stay with you long after you have turned the last page.

I Highly Recommend.

Review by Mary Anne Yarde
The Coffee Pot Book Club

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Donald Lystra

Donald  Lystra was raised in the cities, towns, and suburbs of Michigan. As a young man he was variously engaged as an auto plant worker, a door-to-door salesman, a dishwasher, a housepainter, and a shipyard engineer. He eventually settled into a career as an electrical engineer, though in his fifties he began to write fiction in a serious way.

As a writer he has received creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the McDowell Colony. His 2012 novel, Season of Water and Ice, received the gold medal for Best General Fiction from the Midwest Publishers Association and was named a Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan. His 2014 short story collection, Something that Feels like Truth, also received a MIPA gold medal and a Michigan Notable Book award, as well gaining the IPPY gold medal for Best Regional Fiction. 

Lystra and his wife divide their time between a farm in northern Michigan and a town on the ocean side of Florida.

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  1. I throughly enjoyed every minute of Searching for Van Gogh.

    1. Thank you, Mary Anne, for your detailed review. I'm glad you enjoyed the novel. x