Set in the 1660s, Girl with a Pearl Earring is narrated by Griet, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a tile painter who lives in Delft in the Netherlands. When her father is left unable to work after being blinded in an accident, he arranges for Griet to become a maid in the household of the artist Johannes Vermeer. Settling into her new job, Griet soon finds that coping with the cleaning, washing and dusting are the least of her worries; she also has to learn to deal with the hostility of Vermeer’s wife, the cruelty of one of their young daughters and the jealousy of the family’s other servant, Tanneke. And why is Tanneke jealous? Because Griet has been given the job of dusting Vermeer’s studio – a room rarely entered by the rest of the household. As the months go by, Griet watches painting after painting slowly take shape on Vermeer’s easel, but when she discovers that she herself is going to be the subject of his next portrait she senses that the fewer people who know about it the better…
Having read two of Tracy Chevalier’s other books, Remarkable Creatures and The Virgin Blue, it seemed silly that I still hadn’t read Girl with a Pearl Earring. Now that I’ve read it I can see why it’s her most famous novel. The thing I found most striking about the book is that the writing style actually feels like one of Vermeer’s paintings: clear and detailed and true to life. I am not an expert on Vermeer (or any other artist, to be honest) but this was something that I noticed almost immediately and was very impressed by. If you’re not familiar with Vermeer’s work I highly recommend searching for an image of each painting as it is referred to in the book – I can promise that it will add to your appreciation of the story and of Chevalier’s writing.
This book is set in a time and place that I know very little about and I loved the descriptions of 17th century Delft. Most of Griet’s time is devoted to carrying out her duties within the Vermeer home, but she also has plenty of opportunities to visit other areas of the town – buying meat for the family at the meat market, going to church, visiting her brother at the tile factory where he is an apprentice, or spending time with her parents and the young butcher they hope she will marry. I have never been to Delft but by the time I finished this book I felt I could almost picture what it would have been like to live and work there in the 1660s. The religious aspect of the book – the tensions between the town’s Catholic and Protestant people – was also handled well, showing us the distrust and suspicion that existed between the two communities.
Although there is a romantic element to the story it is quite understated. We are in no doubt as to how Griet feels about Vermeer – it’s noticeable that while she thinks of other people by name, Vermeer is always ‘he’ or ‘him’ and this instantly sets him apart from all the other characters in the story. However, Griet is very slow to admit to herself the significance he has in her life. The romantic aspect of the book is quiet and subtle and lacks drama and passion, as does the rest of the story, but I didn’t have a problem with that. I enjoyed following Griet’s everyday life – shopping at the market, chopping vegetables, dusting the studio – and I enjoyed learning about Vermeer’s work and painting techniques. I didn’t need drama.
But despite finding so much to like about this book, there were also some things that I didn’t like. With the exception of Griet, I thought most of the other characters felt more like stereotypes than fully developed characters. And while I did find the writing style very effective, there seemed to be a distance between the narrator and the reader; the books that I really love are the ones where I can share in the characters’ hopes and fears, where I can laugh with them and cry with them – but I didn’t feel any of that with this book. Still, of the three Chevalier novels I’ve now read, this is my favourite so far and I’m looking forward to trying some of her others.