Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier is a piece of historical fiction. Published in 1999, it has enjoyed critical acclaim as well as commercial success. It was long listed for the Orange Prize in 2000.
The book presents a fictional account of the story behind Johannes Vermeer’s painting Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Last year I read another book featuring a fictional account about a ‘fictional’ Vermeer painting, Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland. I loved that book very much despite it being way out of my usual reading comfort zone. So, I thought I should probably give Chevalier’s book a try too since they both deal with a similar subject matter.
I have to confess that I liked Girl in Hyacinth Blue much better than Girl with a Pearl Earring. Girl with a Pearl Earring is also a fairly good book. But I felt a bit detached from it all. I couldn’t properly focus on the Vermeer-Griet dynamics and the process of the painting of the eponymous painting. I needed more emotion from Griet. Griet, who is basically ‘bullied’ into having a relationship with Pieter by her family and Pieter himself, hardly reacts to it all. Nevertheless, her longing for a better life restrained by the shackles of society was touching.
We get to see very little of Vermeer. We can hardly be sure about how he feels about anything. But this is only natural as we mainly see him through Griet’s eyes, a ‘mere’ servant girl who is deeply infatuated with him. I felt he is a loyal husband and a father but above all he is an artist. His art has to come first, before his love for his wife and children, before the mounting debts and of course before Griet’s feelings, about which he remains at least vaguely aware.
Pieter, I did not like much. But again that is probably because of watching him through Griet’s eyes. The first thing Griet notices about Pieter and his father is their blood stained cloths and nails. Her master’s clean hands linger before her eyes. She is repelled by Pieter but is aware of his good looks. In his own way he is kind to her but his pushiness quite repelled me. The scenes in the alley I found to be particularly nauseating. I think in the book he is much cruder than he is in the movie.
I liked the character of van Leeuwenhoek. This character is not in the movie version of the book. In the movie Pieter is given his dialogues. As a result, Pieter’s character becomes softer.
Maria Thins is a character I liked. She is shrewd and often ruthless but kind nonetheless.
van Ruijven is the archetypical leering villain. Not much depth to his character.
Vermeer’s wife Catharina is a childish woman who often feels she plays second fiddle to her husband’s art. Her constant pregnancies and her irritation with the world in general I understood.
Vermeer’s young daughter Cornelia is painted as the main villain in the book. Surprising considering that she is barely 7-8 years old. I didn’t understand the reason behind her hatred of Griet.
Chevalier’s writing is good. Her usage of metaphors is often fascinating , like these lines from the first page of the book,
“…a woman’s, bright as polished brass, and a man’s, low and dark like the wood of the table I was working on.”
Or this one,
“My mother appeared in the doorway, her eyes two warnings.”
Quite unique and charming in my opinion.
Girl with a Pearl Earring is a well woven character driven novel. I had just hoped to like it better. Something’s missing from this imaginative yet at times stilted historical fiction. I wish I could pinpoint what that missing ingredient is.
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