In mid-career, the celebrated Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer painted a girl wearing a turban and a pearl earring. This famous painting, Girl With a Pearl Earring, has been called the Dutch Mona Lisa. Sometimes she appears to be smiling sensuously, the other times she seems unbearably sad.
In seventeenth-century Delft, a strict social order reigns, dividing rich and poor, Catholic and Protestant, master and servant. When sixteen-year-old Griet goes to work as a maid in th home of the city’s most renowned painter, she is expected to know her place.
But in the Vermeer household, dominated by his mercurial wife and her formidable mother, Griet soon catches the eye of the master. Captivated by Griet’s quiet manner, intuitive spirit, and fascination with art, Vermeer begins to draw her into his world. As Griet becomes a vital part of Vermeer’s work, their growing intimacy spreads tension and deception in the ordered household and even, as the scandal seeps out, ripples into the town beyond.
Girl With a Pearl Earring is very well written with beautiful descriptions, and an obvious amount of research done on the time period and the painter, as well as painting techniques of the 1600s. Chevalier does such a wonderful job describing her setting, painting her characters, and bringing the reader into the work. The colors, the sounds, the smells, the emotions-all of them are brilliantly captured and terribly engrossing.
The sense of class distinctions is portrayed well, and Griet’s personality quirks (such as always keeping her hair covered) make her a more personable protagonist. The pressure of supporting her parents and dealing with the internal politics of the Vermeer family leads her to make some life-changing choices, feeling subject to the will of others. I almost wish the last chapter hadn’t been included – although it does wrap up some loose ends.
However, the characters, with the exception of the main character, Griet, are very one-sided. I wondered why Griet seemed to know so much more about life than anyone else in the book. It was not a fault of the narration, but I think a real oversight in the writing and took away from the novel.
- Chevalier, Tracy. Girl with a Pearl Earring. New York: Plume, 2005. Print. ISBN: 0452287022. Source: Purchased.