Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

One of the best-loved paintings in the world is a mystery. Who is the model and why has she been painted? What is she thinking as she stares out at us? Are her wide eyes and enigmatic half-smile innocent or seductive? And why is she wearing a pearl earring?
Girl With a Pearl Earring tells the story of Griet, a 16-year-old Dutch girl who becomes a maid in the house of the painter Johannes Vermeer. Her calm and perceptive manner not only helps her in her household duties, but also attracts the painter's attention. Though different in upbringing, education and social standing, they have a similar way of looking at things. Vermeer slowly draws her into the world of his paintings - the still, luminous images of solitary women in domestic settings.

In contrast to her work in her master's studio, Griet must carve a place for herself in a chaotic Catholic household run by Vermeer's volatile wife Catharina, his shrewd mother-in-law Maria Thins, and their fiercely loyal maid Tanneke. Six children (and counting) fill out the household, dominated by six-year-old Cornelia, a mischievous girl who sees more than she should.

On the verge of womanhood, Griet also contends with the growing attentions both from a local butcher and from Vermeer's patron, the wealthy van Ruijven. And she has to find her way through this new and strange life outside the loving Protestant family she grew up in, now fragmented by accident and death.

As Griet becomes part of her master's work, their growing intimacy spreads disruption and jealousy within the ordered household and even - as the scandal seeps out - ripples in the world beyond.

Girl With a Pearl Earring is one of those books that have been so talked about in a positive way that when the opportunity arised to read it I couldn't help myself.

I do feel that Chevalier is very good at conveying the right atmosphere for her novels. This is the second one I read and in both of them there's an artistic atmosphere, if you can call it that, and a great concern with describing not only the works of art involved but also the materials and techniques the characters use.

In this story about one of Johannes Vermeer’s most famous paintings, Griet a sixteen year girl is led by the impoverishment of her family to seek employment with Vermeer's family. Griet is an uncommonly sensitive girl who orders vegetables according to size and colour. That attracts Vermeer’s attention and soon she becomes not only the house maid but is assistant in manufacturing the colours he uses. In a society with rigid rules separating religious beliefs and society divisions between people, this transformation of Griet's duties is well hidden from Vermeer's wife, requested by the painter and abetted by his mother in law. Vermeer's demands on Griet won’t stop there as he decides to make her a model for one of his paintings thus making her position in the house even more secretive and fragile.

The atmosphere is indeed everything in this novel where no one comes across as very sympathetic, Vermeer lost in his genius, Griet confused and unsettled by her feelings and the other members of the household more devoted to their own interests. As the action draws to a close it seems obvious that Griet's time with Vermeer would be finished as soon as is painting was. His interest in her as a subject ends when he reaches perfection even if that causes her to lose her job and almost her respectability.

I must confess that although I can see what makes so many love this book that sentiment eluded me somehow. I can see its merits, I'm glad I read it but that's it. Maybe I'm just not a very visual sort of person because I did love the movie where I could actually see the colours and understand them.

Grade: 4/5


  1. I reviewed this book as well. I appreciate all the technical details and descriptions of Vermeer's art. That's what attracted me. Chevealier does a similar thing in Lady and the Unicorn with regard to tapestry weaving. Overall though I liked GWAPE better.

  2. I haven't read this novel yet, but I have seen the movie which I really enjoyed. Nice review.

    Have you seen the movie? If so, do you think the movie stayed true to the book?

  3. I liked the book--I think it conveyed the atmosphere of the period very well. A very ordered society, with so many undercurrents. I think the family relationships, in Vermeer's and Griet's families, were conveyed very well. And I really enjoyed reading your review.
    I feel Chevalier likes to write about social tensions and social change. Try her Falling Angels and The Virgin Blue, to really get a feel for her style.

  4. Nicchic,
    I've read The Lady and the Unicorn too. In fact these are the only two books I've read by the author.

    I watched the movie and I loved it. In the movie you can actually see the colours and it was easier for me. Yes I think it stays true to the story, I'll be looking forward to your opinion when you watch it.

    Thanks, I'll look for those books you mention.

  5. I enjoyed both the movie and the book! Wonderful review Ana!