I had quite a sheltered upbringing. I had a loving family who cared for me and life was never tough. When I really got into reading when I was a teenager I discovered teenagers who had a very different life than mine. These teenagers had abusive or neglectful families or they had been touched by tragedy of one kind or another. I have never known anyone who has suicided so I haven’t been affected by it in any way. As a teenager I didn’t want to read books about it because I didn’t think it related to me. When I first heard about Mandy Hager’s new YA book, Dear Vincent, I wanted to read it, but I wasn’t sure if I would like it. It affected me so much that I was in tears for the last few pages.
17 year old Tara McClusky’s life is hard. She shares the care of her paralysed father with her domineering, difficult mother, forced to cut down on her hours at school to help support the family with a part-time rest home job. She’s very much alone, still grieving the loss of her older sister Van, who died five years before.
Her only source of consolation is her obsession with art — and painting in particular. Most especially she is enamoured with Vincent Van Gogh: she has read all his letters and finds many parallels between the tragic story of his life and her own.
Luckily she meets the intelligent, kindly Professor Max Stockhamer (a Jewish refugee and philosopher) and his grandson Johannes, and their support is crucial to her ability to survive this turbulent time.
Dear Vincent is one of the most powerful, emotionally-charged books I’ve ever read. I don’t think I’ve had such an emotional response to any other book, both adults or YA. The story is narrated by Tara, so you experience all the ups and downs of Tara’s life and you go into the dark spaces inside her head. When you figure out the path that she is taking, you just want to yell at her to stop and think clearly. You want to be the person that she can talk to and help her see sense.
Like Mandy’s other stories, the characters really resonate with me. You understand why Tara has so much anger and hatred towards her parents, but through her discoveries you can also understand why they have become these people. You can’t help but become completely wrapped up in Tara’s life, as you know all her thoughts and feelings. While Tara takes you to some dark places, some of Mandy’s characters bring some light and hope into Tara’s world. My favourite character is Max (or the Professor) who Tara meets in the rest home that she works in. Max is a sort-of grandfather figure to Tara. He loves art, music and philosophy and he reminds Tara of Captain von Trapp from The Sound of Music. Right from when Tara first meets him he’s there to help her through and tries to make her see things from a different point of view. He has some profound words of wisdom, like his metaphor on page 140. This is one of my favourite lines from Max,
‘All life is suffering. One way or the other, damage attaches to us all. In the end it’s how we deal with it – or don’t – that makes us who we are.’
Max’s grandson, Johannes, and Tara’s Auntie Shanaye and Uncle Royan, are others who try to help her through her tough time. They are each incredibly loving and caring in their own ways, and they go out of their way to prove that they are there for Tara. Even though Shanaye and Royan are struggling and they have their own issues to deal with, they are getting on with their life, and they show Tara more love than her parents ever had. While Tara’s parents ran away from The Troubles in Ireland and were miserable, her auntie and uncle stayed and are doing the best that they can for their family.
Dear Vincent is an important story that all teenagers should read. Thank you Mandy for telling Tara’s story. The fact that it can have such an emotional response on a reader is testament to your amazing writing.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Tara on page 249 that mirrors Max’s words from earlier in the story,
‘Hell, maybe it’s the suffering that makes us who we ultimately are. Not just the hurdles, but how we deal with them. Or don’t.’