"History and fiction merge seamlessly in Tracy Chevalier's luminous novel about artistic vision and sensual awakening. Through the eyes of sixteen-year-old Griet, the world of 1660s Holland comes dazzlingly alive in this richly imaginative portrait of the young woman who inspired one of Vermeer's most celebrated paintings." (description from the book cover)
Overall rating: **** (four stars)
- Historical Setting. Chevalier paints a fascinating picture of life in Holland in the 1660s. Not only does the novel explore the class differences in Delft, but also the religious differences. We also get to learn about the camera obscura and its role in Vermeer's painting.
- Characterization of Vermeer. Though the novel is about one of his paintings, we do not see Vermeer as often as we might. He says little, but Griet observes him carefully. The other characters, however, discuss him constantly. This character creation not only serves to keep Vermeer elusive, it also imbues his moments of presence in the story with that much more meaning.
- Description of Painting. One of the most beautiful aspects of this novel is the exploration of Vermeer's way of seeing the world and his method of paining. Chevalier also provides wonderful details of some of the technical aspects of painting, such as preparing the paint itself.
- Motivation. Some of the ancillary characters are more two-dimensional than they might need to be. Van Ruijven is a fairly stereotypical lecherous rich man, and Vermeer's daughter Cornelia is spite personified. While they elegantly serve their purpose, they could be more fleshed out.
- Dialogue. For a first person narrator, Griet is fairly silent. She thinks a great deal and listens to other characters, but she says little herself. For people who need dialogue to understand a character, this may be a problem. The novel is highly internal, rather than based on action, and this could be a problem for some people.
As her inspiration for this historical fiction novel, Tracy Chevalier takes the Vermeer painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. The girl in the painting becomes Griet, a quiet, observant girl who becomes a servant in the Vermeer household when her father suffers a debilitating accident at the tile factory where he worked. Chevalier's book is beautiful and it provides insight into both Vermeer and his paintings. The descriptions provided, particularly of Vermeer painting, mimic the sensual realism of his paintings, and I mean sensual in the purest meaning. This is a novel that appeals to the senses, particularly sight and touch. Whether Vermeer is showing Griet the color in clouds, or Griet is destroying her hands with the lye to clean the floors, Chevalier adds sense descriptions that can often be absent in fiction and almost convince the reader that the book is a tactile experience.
In this novel, we have a classic story of someone torn between two worlds. The introspective character of Griet, together with the world surrounding Vermeer that both draws and repels her, creates a compelling story. Griet is an extremely observant narrator and she is acutely aware of the differences between herself and the people in the Vermeer household. Her relationship with Vermeer is complex and captivating. And yet Chevalier's story does not fall into the same trap as some modern historical fiction, that of writing about the past simply to show famous people having sex. While the relationship between Griet and Vermeer is sensual and full of tension, sexual and otherwise, that the relationship is never close to being consummated (physically at least) makes what does happen between them all the more meaningful.
At this point, I don't remember which happened first, me reading the book or watching to movie. I discovered its existence by watching the BAFTAs and seeing that the movie was up for various awards, and I was intrigued. I love both the book and the movie, and of all of the movies based on books that I have read, it is one of the most successful adaptations. The photography and set design convey the lush observations of Griet. It is a movie about visuals rather than dialogue, as the book is. While the movie is slower than what some people enjoy (it is not a melodrama or an action movie, after all), it is never too slow. The film conveys the beauty and introspection of the book wonderfully. It helps that the book is more focused on sight than most novels, lending itself well to film. If you enjoy the book, I don't believe you'll be disappointed by the movie. If you enjoy the movie, reading the book won't ruin it for you.