Title: Girl with a Pearl Earring
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Publisher: The Penguin Publishing Group [Penguin Putnam Inc.]
Format: E-Book, 240 Pages, $13.80 [Amazon Paperback], $11.53 [Kindle], $15.95 [Audible], $13.65 [Barnes and Noble Paperback], $18.22 [Barnes and Noble Hardcover], $12.99 [Nook], $11.19 [Google Play], $12.99 [iBooks]
Summary: Tracy Chevalier transports readers to a bygone time and place in this richly-imagined portrait of the young woman who inspired one of Vermeer’s most celebrated paintings. History and fiction merge seamlessly in this luminous novel about artistic vision and sensual awakening. Girl with a Pearl Earring tells the story of sixteen-year-old Griet, whose life is transformed by her brief encounter with genius . . . even as she herself is immortalized in canvas and oil.
We’ve all seen that mysterious painting, the one known as Girl with a Pearl Earring, the seventeenth century masterpiece of Johannes “Jan” Vermeer. One can even go so far to say that Girl with a Pearl Earring is “the Dutch Mona Lisa,” as some have taken to calling it. The figure in the painting is mysterious with her gaping mouth, dark soulful eyes, the haunting way in which she gazes over her shoulder, the rather artistic headcloth, and most importantly, the single pearl that catches the light. As we look at this young woman, we cannot help but wonder, who is she? Was she an acquaintance of Vermeer? Was she Vermeer’s relative? A daughter, perhaps? It seems as if the answer to that question is lost to time.
Tracy Chevalier published Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1999 and won international acclaim for her arresting story. Hollywood even made it into a 2003 motion picture (starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth) with a dreamy soundtrack composed by Alexandre Desplat.
It seems like Tracy Chevalier’s story was born out of speculation and a very creative imagination. Her “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is Griet, a young lower class woman who is hired as a temporary maid for the Vermeer family. While working for the Vermeer family, she engages in the most arduous work (laundry, laundry, laundry, oh and more laundry, fetching meat and fish at the marketplace, and helping in any way she can), as she is lowest on the totem pole. It is clear in the beginning that Griet needs to leave her family to work for the Vermeers because her father, the longtime breadwinner as a tile-maker, lost his sight in a kiln accident. Her older brother Frans is in an apprenticeship and her sister, Agnes is far too young, so the burden falls on her shoulders.
Life with the Vermeers is a bit of an adjustment. However, the most interesting part of the story is when Griet interacts with the mysterious Vermeer, observes the progress of his paintings, and cleans his studio. There is something almost magical about the studio and there is a certain amount of reverential awe when Griet regards “him” or “the master.” At first her conversation with Vermeer is very minimal but as they interact more, it’s as if Griet begins to come alive, as if she is was blind but suddenly can see. She witnesses strange inventions like the camera obscura, has a conversation about the colors in the clouds with her employer, has the audacity to move an item in a tableau that Vermeer is painting, and even begins to grind ingredients for him, in order to make paint. This, to me, is the best part of the story. This is the reason why I read Girl with a Pearl Earring. I wanted to hear Griet’s story and in what ways she interacted with the famous painter.
While Vermeer seems to respect Griet with quiet civility or maybe even friendship, just about everyone else in the house seems to ignore or dismiss her. Catharina, the moody, tempestuous, and constantly pregnant wife of Vermeer, dismisses Griet as if she was a fly and seems to lash out at her with vitriol. Tanneke, the senior maid above her (who serves Maria Thins), is rude, condescending, and bossy, but sometimes oddly understanding. It’s apparent from their conversation that Tanneke and Griet are not friends. Maria Thins, mother of Catharina, is a peculiar but insightful woman who gives off the ambience of knowing more than she sees. Interestingly enough, she is one of two people in the house to actually treat Griet with some semblance of respect, helping her in the small ways that she can. Lastly, Cornelia, the devious and clever daughter of Vermeer and Catharina proves herself to be a troublemaker, making life difficult for our heroine.
The last element of the story that I think needs to be mentioned are the characters who are acquaintances of the Vermeer family: the troublesome Van Ruijven, the fascinating Van Leeuwenhoek, and the family butcher, Pieter, with his son, Pieter the younger. Van Leeuwenhoek has a very limited role in the story, nothing more than a friend and fellow like-minded fellow who comes to visit the Vermeers. He provides Vermeer with the camera obscura to provide clarity in his many paintings. Van Ruijven is the superficial patron of Vermeer, often requesting new paintings throughout the book. It’s clear that he is a wealthy man with a lot of money to burn and a fondness for pretty maids. Needless to say, Van Ruijven has a fondness for Griet and constantly pesters her throughout the story, despite the Vermeers’ attempts at hiding her from him. Pieter the elder and Pieter the younger play an interesting role in the story. Pieter the elder is an affable butcher who always has the latest gossip scoop, knowing who is doing what and with who. His son, however, is a rather interesting handsome young man who begins to court Griet throughout the tale, even going so far as to meet her family. It’s clear from the way he talks to Griet that he wants to marry her.
All-in-all, Girl with a Pearl Earring was a fascinating and thought-provoking read, leaving me with more questions than answers. Even until the end of the book, I was at a loss for words to describe what exactly was occurring between Griet and Vermeer. The story left me feeling a little uneasy, much like how Griet felt when she observed something in Vermeer’s painting that felt wrong. It feels as if there is something missing in this story. In this case, I like to think it was all of the unanswered questions about Vermeer. As the quote on the book cover states, I also find this book to be a jewel of a read, enriched with all sorts of artistic facts and steeped so strongly in the history of the seventeenth century.