Wednesday 8 June 2016

Reading Europe: The Netherlands - Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Girl With a Pearl Earring is set during the 17th Century in the Dutch city of Delft. It is a work of historical fiction involving the artist Johannes Vermeer and this painting:

 Girl With a Pearl Earring, 1665

This is a quick and quite enjoyable book to read and is told from the viewpoint of Griet, a 16 year old girl sent to work as a maid in the Vermeer household.
When Griet's father is blinded in an accident at work, she must work to help to support her parents and her younger sister. Griet's brother, Frans, has already been apprenticed out and lives elsewhere.
Griet goes to live with the Vermeer family and becomes a little besotted by the artist. There is friction between Griet and other members of the household, including Vermeer's wife, Catharina, and this escalates when Vermeer asks Griet to grind expensive pigments for him and later uses her as a model for his 'Dutch Mona Lisa.'

It was strange to meet so many new people and see so many new things in one morning, and to do so apart from all the familiar things that made up my life. Before, if I met someone new I was always surrounded by family and neighbors. If I went to a new place I was with Frans or my mother or father and felt no threat. The new was woven in with the old like the darning in a sock.

Chevalier's writing is quite descriptive and overall she captures a sense of the times but Griet's character sometimes spoiled the story for me. The novel would have had more appeal for me if its intended audience was clearer. There were a couple of places where I thought it went beyond the place I'd feel comfortable giving it to someone in their mid-teens. On the other hand, it lacked the depth I'd expect from an adult novel - characters were a little flat and undeveloped, and the ending felt rushed.
Not much is known of Vermeer's life but Chevalier obviously did quite a bit of research into the artist's life and coupled it with her imagination to paint a picture for her readers.

I liked this part of the conversation between Vermeer and Griet when she had asked him if his paintings were Catholic (Griet was a Protestant):

"It's not the painting that is Catholic or Protestant," he said, "but the people who look at it, and what they expect to see. A painting in a church is like a candle in a dark room - we use it to see better. It us the bridge between ourselves and God. But it is not a Protestant candle or a Catholic candle. It is simply a candle."

"There is a difference between Catholic and Protestant attitudes to painting," he explained as he worked, "but it us not necessarily as great as you may think. Paintings may serve a spiritual purpose for Catholics, but remember too that Protestants see God everywhere, in everything. By painting everyday things - tables and chairs, bowls and puckers, soldiers and maids- are they not celebrating God's creation as well?"

The maid Griet is fictitious, but many of the other characters in the book were real people in Vermeer's life - Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the 'father of microbiology;' Pieter van Ruijven (Vermeer's patron), Vermeer's wife, Catharina, and her mother, Maria Thins, for example. These links to actual historical people were interesting as were Chevalier's attempts to fill in the background of this celebrated and mysterious portrait. If you would enjoy a mix of some art history and a light read, this would be a good book to while away an evening or two on.

Linking this to Reading Europe Challenge 2016: The Netherlands 


Silvia said...


I bought this book and... sigh... I returned it for credit. But I see it all the time. I had mixed feelings about reading it.

I like your review. I think I will pass, thanks for explaining it was beyond comfort for mid teens yet not quite at an adult level. I think about the Flavia de Luce's series I'm loving reading (or listening) along with my girls. They are fine for children 10 and up yet very appealing to adults, because the layers and levels of meaning. I think it helps my girls learn about many social problems yet the narrative is never compromised nor contrived. She is a bit of a British Pippi Long Stockings that solves crimes with Gladys, her bike.

Carol said...

I did enjoy some of Chevalier's exploration of the character of Vermeer but I only paid $1 for the book so it worth a quick read. I was just surprised at the absolutely over the top reviews the book had - 'superb, sumptuous, spell-binding...' ??

Melissa said...

I read this book years ago and remember enjoying it at that time. I was a young adult, single, with no children. I wonder how it would be now? Your review brought back memories...thanks :)

Carol said...

I tend to review books with a whole lot of things going around in my head. Is it suitable or appropriate for my kids - how would my 16 yr or 19 yr old deal with this, that or the next thing? Because I didn't become a Christian until I was nearly 20, I think differently about some things now that wouldn't have prior to that. Then there are some books (but the above book isn't in that category, obviously) that you feel are so important that you overlook the delivery to a certain point to get at the message.

Tina at said...

We studied the Netherlands earlier this year (, but this book would have been above our levels for now. Might bookmark it for the future though. Thanks for sharing this at Booknificent Thursday on!

Silvia said...

That's my opinion about some greatly acclaimed new books. When we read from the classics, most newer books don't quite cut it.

I tell you because I'm in a local book club, which I love, and out of the 11 titles selected, 9 are newish books. We've read 5 already, and just one, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, was remarkable, and not as a 'superb' book, but it's a great series I'm enjoying with my daughters. Next one, -my proposed one-, In Cold Blood!, THAT'S another story. Great masterpiece by Truman Capote.

I don't push the classics or older titles for snobbish reasons, but what book can compete with what's been tried and tested.

But the book club reads have value for different reasons (the fellowship, the discussions), and the thrill of finding a new title that's worth.

Carol said...

I saw that book by Capote in the bookshop recently & I got him confused with Al Capone, the crim! Book clubs are good for those reasons you mentioned & I love talking about books with others :)

Carol said...

Thanks for the link, Tina.

Taj Mahal Tour Packages said...

Great blog posts, thank you very much to enjoy the best educational blogs news. This is best destination at Europe Netherlands girl working field photos. Taj Mahal Tour By Car