Written by Tracy Chevalier
Published by Plume
Review by Paula Day
Congratulations to Tracy Chevalier on this fine achievement for a first novel. Inspired by Vermeer’s painting by the same name, Girl With a Pearl Earring brings the reader to 1660s Holland with thoughtful, well-spoken, and well-selected details.
Who is the girl with a pearl earring? One look into her eyes and we see her staring lovingly, even longingly, at someone, perhaps the painter Vermeer himself. The story is told from the point of view of the girl with a pearl earring, Griet, a blossoming young woman who suddenly finds herself a maid in Vermeer’s household. Chevalier does an excellent job relating the essence of Griet through her sparse yet sensuous narration. On the one hand frugal and practical, on the other hand burning with curiosity and then love for her new master, Griet is an intriguing study in the contradictions of the human spirit. At times her narration seems too distant, too detached, but the story she tells is so fascinating that we forgive her the cooling of her heart.
Fans of Vermeer will cheer as Chevalier describes his painting process in detail, from the state of his studio as he painted to his use of a camera obscura. Griet becomes the muse and the model for Vermeer as he paints Girl With a Pearl Earring. The novel also addresses, in an indirect way, the subject of art itself. What makes a painting a work of art, and who has the final say on a painting, the artist or the patron? And what demands do artists have the right to make of their models or subjects?
Tracy Chevalier has shown Vermeer as an aloof, eccentric, but caring man, and we see his genius as an artist in action. Griet is an intelligent character who gives a strong if restrained narrative voice to a strong story. This novel is recommended for fans of Vermeer, as well as for those who love historical fiction and wish to travel to 1660s Holland.
The recent film version of the movie, starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth, is an excellent adaptation of the novel. The film uses the colors and shadow that we often associate with Vermeer’s art, and in the scenes of the movie we find ourselves peeping through doors the way we do when we enter a Vermeer painting. The film is sensuous yet cautious, like the novel, and fans of the novel will be glad they saw the film.
Paula Day is the Review Editor of The Copperfield Review and the managing editor of Copperfield Press. She lives in Los Angeles, California.