Thursday, 24 February 2011

[25] Girl With a Pearl Earring - Tracy Chevalier

Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

"Chevalier is a master of the telling detail, the evocative image... Through such detail, Chevalier draws the reader into the world of the painting, into the mood of the masterpiece she explores: moving, mysterious, at times almost unbearably poignant. Sometimes it seems so strong the reader can almost sense it, feel it breathing all around. This is a novel which deserves, and I am sure will win, a prize -- or two."

- The Times

Why I Picked It Up:

I like historical fiction and vaguely remembered a movie based on it.

What I Think:

Girl With a Pearl Earring is yet another novel that spawned a movie that I had heard more about than the original book. The movie came out when I was just out of middle school and I only vaguely remember it as the first movie where I knew who Scarlett Johansson was. I may have known that it was based on a novel of the same name but as I never saw the movie, I never though much of the book.

Last week, when I looked through the shelves (after already grabbing The Reader), I noticed this book and thought "Oh, yeah. I've heard of this." It had a very intriguing cover and there were rave reviews on the back of the book. It sounded interesting and possibly amazing, if the reviewers weren't crazy. I'm always down for a good book and decided on those two for the next two weeks (little did I know I'd finish them both in six days). 

What I think is the most interesting part of this novel is actually the basic concept of it, itself. I love that the author took a famous painting by a mysterious but famous painter and decided to write a backstory for it. It's really a genius idea. Little is known about Vermeer the man and what little is known is interesting. He lived in a tiny Dutch village all his life. He had fifteen children, eleven of whom survived to adulthood. He was always on the edge of poverty, skyrocketing just before his death. He sounds like an intriguing character.

He, however, is not the protagonist. Our heroine is Griet, daughter of a tile painter who was recently blinded in an accident. Due to the family's turn in fortune, she is required to go work for the Vermeer family as a maid. It's a downturn in her status, the mother and third daughter cannot stand her for unknown reasons, and (worst of all) the Vermeers are a Catholic family in a Protestant town. Griet, along with everything else, has to deal with religious iconography following her around the house. 

Most of the novel deals with her changing lifestyle, getting used to being a maid, the advances of the butcher's son, family politics she carefully maneuvers around. However, she was specifically hired for one duty: cleaning the painter's studio. Because of this, she is envied by some in the house for her access to such a private place (which even his wife isn't allowed inside). The novel plays with this intimacy and all the different stages Griet goes through with Vermeer. There is a strange sense of longing through most of the book, evoked by painting.

Several paintings are described in detail as he works on them and it's interesting to read a book and be able to go online and see the images for oneself. This sounds awful, I know, and forgive me art critics but honestly, most of the paintings sounded more impressive in the novel than they looked on the internet. I don't know if that says something good about Chevalier's writing or something bad about my eye for famous art.

There is an interesting device the author uses of never mentioning Vermeer by name. All the characters in the book are adressed as Griet, Catharina, Cornelia, and so on but Vermeer is always simply 'he'. At first, it was vaguely uncomfortable but it does create an intriguing sense of distance and respect, as if he is not a man but some sort of other being. It certainly affects the characters in the novel and it's fascinating to watch it play out.

It is interesting to read historical fiction like this, to go through a typical day with Griet as she hand washes the laundry, goes to the butcher and the fishmonger and sometimes even the apothecary. Despite being so far in the past, Griet is a good narrator, a smart girl with a good head on her shoulders that just has a lot to deal with in her life. She is as relatable as she could be, given the circumstances and, I feel, how much you liked her as a narrator will correspond with how much you enjoy the end of the novel.

The one thing I don't understand about this book, however, is the reviews for it. It's a fine book, to be sure, but I don't really see what it deserves an award for. It's entertaining, well written and enjoyable but it's not particularly deep or moving. I didn't come out of this novel feeling like I learned a lesson about life or love or anything in particular, except perhaps be wary of famous painters and the effect they could have on your life. I'm not saying the book is bad, far from it; I'm just saying that it's nothing super special, either. 

Either way, though, it's a good read and I would recommened it. Just don't expect it to change anything but your views on seventeenth century Holland.


  1. I have seen the movie with Scarlett Johansson, and I remember liking the movie which made me interested in the book. It sounds pretty similar in plot too.
    So check out the movie and I'll check out the book. :)

  2. I really will have to check out the movie. I would love to see how they go about the scenes in Vermeer's studio. They were written so well in the book that I was let down to see the actual works.