Sunday, November 25, 2012
Review: Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
When Tracy Chevalier was a guest on BBC World Book Club she said that the longer she looked at the eponymous painting the more she wondered about the relationship between the subject and the artist, and what made the girl look so yearning and fearful at the same time. This book is an exploration of these questions and answers, and it packs a surprisingly hefty punch for such a slim novel. The surprise is of course a result of the 600+ page tomes we are so used to nowadays, and is a reminder that a book doesn't have to be heavy enough to pass for a weapon or a small boat anchor to hold a world vivid enough to make a reader want to explore it further and characters so complex and full of personality that they stay with you long after the book is finished.
In a lot of ways this novel is like a painting, with symmetry between various characters' relationships, juxtapositions of actions and traits, and repeating details that tie the story together. Just like in the painting Griet is at the center of the novel, with her small world reflected in the pearl earring she must wear to complete the work of art. She is an unusual teenager, by current standards, with her sober appraisal of people and situations, clever navigation of the Vermeer household and her being almost completely distanced from her own emotions and relying on reason more than feelings in her decision-making. Had it not been for their respective circumstances I think she would have made a good partner for Vermeer, despite their age difference, for while devoted to his art she does see the world outside of it. She would balance him out in a way that nobody in his family does.
There is quite a bit of allegory and symbolism in this novel, which also reminded me of works of art. While in New York last week I visited The Cloisters museum and the guide there explained every detail of a statue as a symbol of something relating to the patron to whom the statue belonged. I got a similar impression reading this book that a lot of what happened or existed in the story had a special meaning. Sometimes the allegory is subtle, sometimes it's obvious, but it works nonetheless.
There are as many conflicts in this novel as there are symbols and the main one, the one that drives the story, is rooted in Griet's internal struggle between a good protestant girl who takes pride in clean floors and starched caps and a passionate girl in love with colors and beauty. I think this is the discord Vermeer captured so well in his painting and I commend Chevalier for writing it so believably.
The language of the book and Griet's voice work very well with the subject and plot of the novel. There is restraint and spare prose which are easy to associate with protestant sensibilities, and there are also glimmers of the more liberal aesthetic that runs as an undercurrent in Griet's personality, hidden from everyone, just like her hair, but showing through in her eyes and actions.
I never really understood why Griet's role as assistant to and later model for Vermeer was to be kept secret from his wife. It is true that there was animosity, and the situation could be seen as different despite the fact that this was not the first time Catharina lent her clothes or her jewels for her husband's paintings, but had everybody not acted in an unusual fashion and had they been upfront with Catharina the drama could have been avoided. This novel wouldn't be what it is though either, so I suppose the drama was necessary.
I've been thinking about this book since I finished it, mulling over Griet's decisions throughout the novel, Vermeer's single-minded focus on his work at the expense of everything else, Maria Thin's place in it all and Griet's parents' contribution to the story. I wonder how close Chevalier's interpretation is to what really happened between the Vermeers and the girl with a pearl earring and whether had even one character been different the novel would have been as engaging as it is. The paperback copy of the book I read was on loan from a friend, so I will be purchasing a copy for my home library, because for me this one is a keeper.