A student handed this book to me last weekend after a discussion about art and novels inspired by art works during the previous weekend class, asking me to read it. The minute I saw the cover, I knew that this would be one of those books I would not be able to set aside till I finished it. I started reading it that very evening and had it not been for an extremely exhausting week I would have finished it in one sitting. I finished it the next day… :-) I am now going to try and get hold of the film, released in 2003, starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth !
Set in 17th century Holland, the novel has been inspired by Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting Girl with a Pearl Earring, also famous as the “Dutch Mona Lisa.” Little is know about the girl in the painting or who commissioned the work. Tracy Chevalier has, however, beautifully recreated the the circumstances in which the painting was created.
Girl with a Pearl Earring narrates the story of Griet, a sixteen year old working in the Vermeer household as a maid, after her father, a tile painter, was blinded in an accident and the family started having financial problems. Initially unhappy about her new role, Griet soon makes a place for herself in the Vermeer house, even though her mistress, Catherine Vermeer has disliked her from the moment she set eyes on her and tries to make life difficult for her. The novel takes us along with Griet as she discovers first the life of a maid in an affluent family with different religious beliefs and then the world of colors as she starts assisting Vermeer in grinding colors. This last task however leads to trouble for Griet – Catherine’s increased wrath and the unwanted attention of a patron who wants a painting of Griet.
While Griet’s life at the Vermeer household is a constant series of discoveries, Sundays at home become increasingly oppressive as her family starts cracking under the pressure of poverty. So when the butcher’s son Pieter starts showing interest in Griet, her parents encourage this new alliance in the hope of a better future for both Griet and themselves. The dilemma in Griet’s mind as she struggles on one hand to remember that she is but a maid whose status in the Vermeer household will never change and on the other hand coaxes herself to respond to Pieter’s attentions and reconcile herself to a future as a butcher’s wife is brought out beautifully.
Delightfully rich in descriptions, it’s a little wonder that the book was New York Times bestseller in 2000. I loved how Chevalier has built each character with so many nuances and yet left nothing incomplete. Each and every character has a strong and important role and helps to weave the plot together and bring the book (and the painting) alive. A fascinating book, Girl with a Pearl Earring is a must read for those who love a good story.