My rating: 4 stars
Inspired by Johannes Vermeer’s famous portrait, Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier tells one of the many possible and plausible stories about the face that stands out from the painting’s dark background. The novel is narrated in the first person by sixteen-year-old Griet. She recalls how she came to sit for Vermeer in a historical fiction novel that features many interesting characters whose tribulations deserved to be even further explored.
In 1664, Griet became a maid at Vermeer’s household. She had to start working outside the home, because her family was struggling financially. After losing his eyesight in an accident, her father couldn’t continue to be a tiles painter and lost all his trade. Griet’s new job was not only to wash all their clothes and to buy meat or fish at the market, but also to clean Vermeer’s studio. When she arrived at their house, she was astonished at all the paintings. She didn’t have much free time to stare at them, though, as Johannes and his wife, Catharina, who was pregnant again, had five children, and his mother-in-law, Maria Thins, also lived with them.
Griet was only allowed to go home on Sundays. News about her parents and siblings, Agnes and Frans, were scarcer than she would have liked. It was Pieter, the son of the butcher at the market, who told her that the neighbourhood where her parents lived had been put into quarantine because of an outbreak of the plague. She wanted to go home immediately but was not allowed to. Pieter managed to find out for her that her sister was seriously ill.
From the outset, there are hints to a forthcoming tense moment in the household. The tone used by Griet when talking about Johannes Vermeer leads to immediately conclude that something happened between them that she doesn’t want to reveal just yet, but that is at the back of her mind and that was significant for her life. The way she uses the pronoun “he”, the descriptions of little gestures and the reactions to his presence always give the impression of a restrained agitation.
“The next morning in the studio I opened all the shutters and looked around the room for something I could do, something I could touch that would not offend him, something I could move that he would not notice.”
Tracy Chevalier crafted many characters for Girl with a Pearl Earring, which helps create the impression that this story could have been real. Griet was initially timid and that is conveyed not only through her thoughts, but also by her movements and gestures. As time passed, she started being more confident. Maria Thins was practical and shrewd. Although Vermeer remains mostly a mystery, he could be both irresponsible and kind. However, in spite of the noticeable care given to the characters, I still wanted to know more about some of their inner struggles. The reasoning behind some of Griet’s actions was also not fully convincing.
A significant amount of research about painting and the artistic world of the time was surely part of the groundwork for this novel. The descriptions of the paintings at Vermeer’s house are so vivid that I could almost see them myself. Griet’s surprise and wonder at discovering what a camera obscura was is magnificently conveyed. The necessary toils around the paintings seem very realistic.
The plot of this historical novel feels genuine. The setting is also certainly believably portrayed. Even though the characters could have been further explored, they still feel authentic and make Girl with a Pearl Earring worth reading.