For a while, I wanted to study art (either Fine Art or Art History) in college — I was one of those girls who spent every spare moment in the darkroom or in the art supply store, ogling sets of compressed charcoal sticks. I collected postcards of my favorite paintings and photographs, which I stored in a silver box on my desk. I spent hours going through stacks of art books I had borrowed from the head of the art department; my favorite was a pop-up of Red Grooms‘s Ruckus Rodeo.
In spite of my long-standing love of art (and books), I could never rally any interest to read Tracy Chevalier‘s novel Girl with a Pearl Earring until a friend gave it to me for my birthday a few years ago.
“You’ll love it,” Golnar said. “It’s one of my favorites.”
So, resigned, I gave it a whirl. And really enjoyed it. So much so that a week or so ago I pulled it off of the shelf and reread it in the course of a few days. I’m happy to report that years later (as well as after a film adaptation and numerous awards) Chevalier’s work remains cool, concise and light, coloring the pages of the book with vivid descriptions.
Girl with a Pearl Earring is the fictionalized account behind the painting of the same name by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. (Vermeer’s work have always been an interest of mine. He painted so little, and yet so frequently of the same corner, i.e. Officer and a Laughing Girl, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, The Girl with a Wine Glass. Why?) The novel’s protagonist, Griet, has been sent to the Vermeer household to work as a maid; her father, a tile painter, had been injured in an accident, and it falls to his children to earn a living for the family. Thrust into a world that is absolutely foreign to her — aside from being of a higher class, the Vermeers are Catholics — Griet quietly observes the family dynamic and its petty power struggles, as well as the work produced from within the painter’s studio.
Chevalier guides the reader with incredible restraint, and, at times, the writing seems too simple, as if such an evocative story demands more curlicued and baroque syntax. That is not the case at all. Here, restraint is key, as it insists that the readers gives his- or herself entirely to the book, its imagery and its story. And all for the better.