Girl with a Pearl Earring

Tracy Chevalier

Read August 2003

Vermeer is a somewhat enigmatic, always compelling artist.  He flourished in a time when the Dutch had too much other genius on offer and his small oeuvre has probably earned him less exposure than his more fruitful compatriots.  But what works those few are!  And of these, one of the more remarkable is his girl with a pearl earring.  We apparently know virtually nothing about the sitter, so Chevalier throws her hat into the ring of historical fiction, constructing an account, perhaps even a plausible one (I wouldn't know), for the subject.

So far so good.  The book begins with great promise, with the dialog and narration incorporating interesting details about Vermeer's works.  I could feel my pulse quicken when Vermeer first entered the story.  Indeed, there are moments even later on when this book shines, as when the protagonist, Griet, has an exchange with Vermeer about his Catholic faith and its influence on his paintings.

Chevalier, unfortunately, seems to lose her way soon into the book.  The characters are largely leaden (Vermeer himself is ghostly, presumably because we know little about him, but he's not very pleasant when he is around).  Her portrayal of seventeenth century Delft is fairly flat (a hundred pages of Chevalier's prose conveyed less than one of Breughel's or Vermeer's better paintings).  The backstory that lies at the center of the book is itself unconvincing (I am no more likely to believe now that the girl painted is a maid than I was earlier), and the plot simply has too unexplained tensions, some of which aren't even necessarily consistent (such as Vermeer's wife consenting to one maid but not Griet posing).  Even the details don't come together cleanly: for instance, Chevalier repeatedly describes Vermeer using a camera obscura presented by Van Leeuwenhoek, but can't bring herself to explain how what he actually does with it (the cynic wonders if perhaps it wasn't just cool to mention the device, without understanding its function, with an opportunity to drop a famous name in the bargain).  I also didn't buy the overly mature inner voice (or ridiculously excessive capability) of Griet associated with her corporeal innocence.  An editor should have worked harder.  At least the cover is gorgeous.