"All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words." - Amy Lowell, 'Sword Blades and Poppy Seed'

Friday, June 10, 2011

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Chevalier, Tracy. Girl with a Pearl Earring. New York: Plume, 1999. 233 pages.

 "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.

The Movie:
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.


  1. Hi and Welcome to the blogging world. Can I say I love love totally love your background on your blog. I want to go there and read books. Where is it?

    Anyhow, I just Google Followed you. If you like romance books (historicals are my favourite) I complete book reviews and the odd post every now and then, please feel free to check me out.
    Best of luck to you and your beautiful blog.


  2. Welcome to Book Blogs! Very lovely blog, and nice reviews so far--not the same as what everyone else is talking about! Good luck, Rae
    Best O' Books
    Faded Bookmarks

  3. To MichelleKCanada:
    My background photo is of a library in the Winter Palace, which is one of the buildings that makes up the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Though most of the rooms have art in them, some of the palace rooms were left decorated as they were when they were used. I wish I had a library like it...

    To Best O' Books (Rae):

    Thank you for your kind wishes!

  4. Sad to say I haven't read the book yet, but I did see the movie.

  5. Welcome to Book Blogs, Brenna. I liked this movie but have not read the book yet. I'm a new follower from Book Blogs. I'm a new blogger too.

    ~Monique @ AsianCocoa's Secret Garden

  6. I actually want to watch this movie. I thought a class on Art Appreciation before and one of the paintings we tackled was Girl with a Pearl Earring.

  7. I agree with Michelle, love the background. This was a very well written review - you're a natural! I think movie adaptations is a great idea - I'll be back to see what else you've got :-)

    Following from book blogs, so nice to meet you.

    Stacey @ www.thewritetomakealiving.com