Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Tracy Chevalier - Girl With 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.

Comment: I've decided to read this book for one of my (two) book clubs. I have to confess I wasn't very excited with it, but I haven't seen the movie and I have the book - I got it as part of a collection I've done by buying a newspaper and there was a promotion selling it with several books priced much cheaper than a normal edition - and when I saw how small it was I got more relaxed because at least if I dind't like it, I didn't have to suffer long.

The book is an attempt by the author to give life to the painting by the artist Vermeer. According to the author, there is no story behind the portrait or any historical note about the girl in the painting. Apparently no one knows who she was, who she represented, where the painter found her or what she meant to him. The author has written a story of her free will, completely fictional. She knew when the painter did the portrait and she used that time of his life and the knowledge about his personal life to imagine a servant living in his house, working for his family, to be the muse used in the painting.

The fictional story starts when Griet, a young girl, is asked to work in the painter Vermeer's house. In there she has to do the chores and deals with Vermeer's wife, mother in law, daughters and other servants. She also has to deal with Van Ruijven, Vermeer's patron and sort of boss. He's a man who takes what he wants and finds in Griet someone unexpected. Grit also feels attracted to Vermeer but he's married and their relationship never crosses any boundaries. 
I think the best thing about the book is the small details the author inserted about the life in Netherlands in the 17th century. So many little things, apparently unimportant, but that give life to the story. Like Griet is protestant and Vermeer's family is catholic and Griet doesn't have the same adoration for the images of religious scenes like most catholics do, or how a girl in those days had to follow a certain conduct and foe Griet having her hair bound and hidden was a matter of self respect and duty, or even how people would react to sickness in those times, all very well mixed with the fiction and giving the author a very god sense of the things behind the plot.
The book is indeed small, but it's richly descriptive, without being boring or heavy because of that. I liked Griet and her quietness. I found disturbing her growing attraction to her boss and knowing nothing would come out of it, but the situation she put herself in because of his art and how it threatened her position were things I dreaded seeing but nevertheless I wanted to know how it ended.
Griet had to deal with many characters while living in Vermeer's house. It was fascinating how she had to learn how to dodge some and to mold her behavior to others. Very interesting and gave a more alive feeling to the story, mostly in her dealings with the ladies of power in the house. Also, this story was a very interesting way of knowing more about the life of someone poor in the house of influent people in those times.
This was a true historical fiction tale and I was actually positively surprised by it. It took me only one day to read it too. The end of the book was rather surprising but not totally unexpected.
I think the author has done a good job trying to present a story behind the famous painting and despite the fact it might not be true - most likely it isn't - it doesn't make the book any less well researched and interesting. 
Some people in the book club for which I've read the book don't agree and say the story was uninteresting because nothing happens, it's just the description of Griet's life there. But I think the beauty of this book is exactly in the things we infer and in the small details that apparently don't matter. I recommend it.

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