My long-standing reluctance to read ‘Girl With the Pearl Earring’ before all other Chevalier books, stemmed from not having adequate time to really enjoy the book and then watch the film right after – um, yes, that would be the film with Colin Firth in it. It all had to happen precisely for me and because it did not, I put off “the event” – as I like to call it – until the timing was perfect.
This book has been reviewed as one of the best pieces of fiction of our time . I do see why, for quite honestly it is Chevalier’s best piece of work. She has such a brilliant skill when it comes to juxtaposing art with story telling, that her knowledge of the particular era, its customs and the vivid colors she imbues upon each character in the story, makes it irresistible to the very nature of a book-worm like me. I could not put this book down and even when I did, I found myself completely and utterly immersed in this simple story. I had such beautiful visions of Delft, that I felt as though I want to visit the city. In my dreams I moved with ease to the seventeenth century and invited myself to dinner at the table of Vermeer, Catharina and Maria Thins. I sat by the roaring fire warming my feet and watched Griet hard at work bossed around by Tanneke who is only twenty-six but seemed so old and tired, jaded and unsmiling in the mental picture I had of her. I observed Griet’s sixteen year old face, saddened by her plight; her thoughts flitting across her face in a tumultuous blend of yearning and aversion, and I basically lived in the attic where the sheer genius of a master painter took place. My book came with copies of nine stunning color paintings by Vermeer, all of which are so breath-taking that I would read the book, then pause to take in the painting alluded to within the pages and continue my journey again.
The story is as much about class distinction as it is about characterization. Griet’s character is fascinating; you get a sense of her almost immediately as you watch her chopping vegetables in her mother’s kitchen, coordinating the vegetables into a colored wheel which is quite significant to the story. When Vermeer sees her for the first time , you sort of understand his fascination and thinking as he is drawn to her quiet precision. Griet does not come from wealth, but, hers is clearly a happy family until an accident leaves her father blind and burned, unable to provide for his family. Whilst her brother Franz is sent away to learn the family craft of painting tiles, Griet has to face the humiliating task of becoming a maid. The lines of distinction are drawn immediately as Chevalier describes Griet’s trek to the Vermeer’s residence across town. I bore the weight of her leaving her home as though she was my own, berating myself for sending her out into the world to serve another family when she should be going to school to learn – unheard of in those days simply because of her status. Chevalier an artist of sorts herself, weaves and carries the reader through of the poor end of town to the wealthier end, where bigger homes, cleaner streets, beautiful clothes and better cuts of meat from the butcher is a way of life. Whilst there is no strong emphasis on religion, a strong division between Catholics and Protestants exist in terms of mistress and servant, it is gently touched upon by the author – although quite clearly, everyone is expected to know their place.
Griet is kind and spirited but also a young girl with amazing intuition and a very strong work ethic which you notice as soon as she gets to work in the household, in-spite of the domineering Tanneke and the insecure lady of the house Catharina, whose only task it seems is to bear children and entertain various patrons. She works and cleans persistently until her bones ache, then wakes up again and does it all over again without a complaint. She faces some opposition from Catharina who takes a deep disliking towards her straight away and one of the Vermeer girls Cornelia who is absolutely insolent and malicious. After being slapped by Griet the latter becomes down right evil. Maria Thins who is Catharina’s mother, is very much the lady in charge and almost all in the household answer to her, including Vermeer. She is strong, not to be trifled with and somehow she develops a tolerance for Griet, which saves her many, many times. Although Griet’s saving grace is Vermeer himself. When she is asked to clean his studio, something neither his wife not Tanneke is allowed to do, Griet changes visibly. She is happier, richer in spirit and glows with the secret she and Vermeer seem to share unbeknownst to everyone else other than perhaps Maria Thins herself. She develops an interesting emotion towards him, a sort of intimacy based on trust and art, which is in part to do with her gratitude for escaping the menial tasks of a kitchen maid and in part due to opening up a new world of sight, brush strokes and glorious sumptuous blends of color. As their intimacy increases though it is not really sexual in nature, Griet is taught to ground the most beautiful colors together, she begins to understand silence and light, and how these elements are then applied to the character of a person Vermeer brings to life. As the value of her opinion grows and the demands of his patron van Ruijven become unbearable he turns to Griet more and more, much to her joy and Catharina’s anger. When Griet is immortalized in a painting … it affects Griet’s own relationships and tests everything she comes to value. I can’t say anymore, but take it from me, this is a beautifully written book, the language is simple and elegant and the story moves quite fast, but not fast enough that you miss out on every element to be savored.
As always Chevalier leaves you wanting more. When I closed the book, I sat with it for a while knowing in this instance that there was an extension to the book which I badly needed for I didn’t want the story to end there. I will tell you about the film next.