I recently finished Girl with a Pearl Earring, another book read as a result of our lack of Internet and cable at home. It’s one of those books I’d sort of been meaning to read for a while, because I’d heard it was good, but I just never got around to it until now.
The story is a fictional idea of how Vermeer’s famous painting may have come to be. Author Tracy Chevalier does a nice job of putting together a story that is almost believable, particularly in that she does not over-glamorize the lives of the characters in the book.
The main character is Griet, who goes to work for the Vermeer family after her father is blinded in an accident and can no longer continue in his livelihood of painting tiles, which apparently was a common Dutch occupation at that time. At the age of 16, Griet must become the primary provider for her family – mother, father and little sister Agnes. Her brother, Frans, is apprenticed to a tile painter, learning his father’s trade.
Griet slowly acclimates to life with the Vermeers, learning to stay out of the way of the elder maid Tanneke (who is only 28 but has aged rapidly thanks to her years of servitude), to maintain the appearance of wanting to please her mistress Catharina and to be wary of the wise Maria Thins, the matriarch of the household.
That Griet is allowed into Vermeer’s painting studio to clean quickly becomes a point of contention with Catharina, and her position in the household seems constantly in peril – until Vermeer begins to use her as something of an assistant. The fact remains hidden from Catharina, and Griet, in her efforts to please her master, whom she feels a strange attraction and kinship to, works long hours to ensure all her chores are completed.
Through the two years in Griet’s life covered in the book, she undergoes many changes. Her sister dies from the plague after Griet has refused to speak to her in the marketplace; Griet carries this burden with her for the rest of her days. Frans runs away from his apprenticeship and is nowhere to be found. And Pieter, the son of the butcher the Vermeers use, becomes more and more interested in her, despite her efforts to deflect his attention.
The story eventually climaxes with Vermeer’s decision to paint Griet because one of his clients, a perverted man who can’t keep his hands to himself, requests a portrait of the “wide-eyed maid.” When Vermeer declares that Griet must wear his wife’s earrings in order for the portrait to be complete, she knows that she will lose her position, but she can’t say no to him.
The story resonates because it’s not a fairly tale by any means, and it feels like real life. There is suffering, disappointment, anger, hatred and so many other things. The characters don’t all come to a happy ending, but they come to a real ending. Chevalier did an admirable job of making a story that was a fictional account of a factual event into a believable tale. Grade: A-
A wee little update.
3 months ago