johannes vermeer

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

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.

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

While idly browsing the shelves of a second hand book store a random book caught my eye. A blue spine and a name, Girl in Hyacinth Blue. As I read the blurb I felt that it probably wasn’t my kind of book. But something made me want to try it anyway.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland is the story of a fictional painting by Vermeer. Eight interconnected tales, all linked to the past and the present of this piece of art, are presented in this book.

The eight short tales are Love Enough, A Night Different From All Other Nights, Adagia, Hyacinth Blues, Morningshine, From the Personal Papers of Adriaan Kuypers, Still Life and Magdalena Looking.

The book chronicles the journey of the painting through the ages but the journey is not presented in a chronological way. Its history unfolds in reverse.

The book begins with Love Enough. A math teacher by profession and a loner by choice Cornelius Engelbrecht suddenly reveals to his unsuspecting colleague that he may own a hitherto unknown painting by Vermeer. However, he refuses to disclose where he acquired the painting from, casting a doubt on its authenticity.

A young Jewish girl struggles with the changing times and her own entry in to adulthood during the Second World War in A Night Different From All Other Nights.

In Adagia, a man thinks with tenderness about the lost love of his youth and his long time marriage.

The next story, Hyacinth Blues takes a rather comic look at a rapidly disintegrating marriage of convenience.

The next two stories, Morningshine and From the Personal Papers of Adriaan Kuypers, take place almost simultaneously and are closely linked. A poor farmer’s wife finds an abandoned infant and starts to look for beauty in her own dreary life in Morningshine. From the Personal Papers of Adriaan Kuypers is the story of a young man who falls for a wild, nomadic girl with tragic consequences.

The last two stories, Still Life and Magdalena Looking take us right back to the moment the painting was conceived. Still Life is told from the point of view of the painter while Magdalena Looking tells us about the ‘real’ girl behind the painting.

The writing was very easy to read. It flowed beautifully and the language was elegant. Once I started reading the book I couldn’t stop. I tried to slow down, to enjoy the unfolding of the layered history of the painting. But even with deliberate interruptions I ended up finishing it off in a day and a half.

Among the stories I liked Adagia, Hyacinth Blues, Morningshine, From the Personal Papers of Adriaan Kuypers and Magdalena Looking.

I know a lot of people don’t enjoy short stories. Some may find this book further complicated by the fact that it is told in the reverse. But that is the beauty of the book. That is what made this interesting for me. I wanted to see what happened before this and what led the painting to this house or to the hands of that person.

All the people who came in contact with the painting, living their lives throughout the intervening centuries from the inception of the painting to its present circumstance, were profoundly touched by it. All of them took away something different from it. That is what I really loved about Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

I read this book without any prior expectations and what a pleasant surprise this has been! Highly recommended.

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.