As an example of mainstream fiction it is by no means despicable. It offers solid enjoyments although the careful reader will be uneasy about many authorial choices.
Reviewed by Bob Williams
Girl with a Pearl Earring
by Tracy Chevalier
Plume 2001 (copyright by Tracy Chevalier 1999), ISBN 0-452-28493-7, $14.00, 234 pages
Historical novels raise all sorts of interesting questions. What amount of explanation is an author required to give? Should there be a limit to the piling up of detail after detail? Is the venture itself in the hands of a writer of only moderate ability a safe one? And, most importantly, what happens to the art of the novel itself as it collides with another art, in this case not just the art of painting but painting by the elusive and often heart-stopping Jan Vermeer. Chevalier presents herself with a task of some difficulty. In her selection of Griet, she avoids one problem: the anachronism of ascribing modern ideas to a former time. Griet is a simple girl of sixteen and as the perceptive center of the narrative not likely to walk too far into a trap of this kind. But because the author is cautious Griet may appear sometimes almost too barren of character.
Chevalier’s choice of Schama’s Embarrassment of Riches is wise. This is a lively book that is well observed and brilliantly expressed. Perhaps there is too little in Chevalier on the reason for the Dutch generosity to Catholics and why this generosity was so remarkable.
The Vermeer household is Catholic and this is the first of a series of shocks for Griet. Other shocks are the various members of the household: Catharina, the incredibly fertile and cranky mother; Cornelia, one of her malicious daughters; and Tanneke, a fellow servant who is sometimes sullen, sometimes friendly. The latter has a special importance. The hard work that she has performed has made her older in appearance than she is. She is at the story’s beginning the same age that Griet will be at its close. (The book is divided into four parts and each part is a separate year. The first three (1664, 1665 and 1666) are consecutive but the last part is 1676.)
The men that confront Griet are the greatest shock: Vermeer himself, taken with her intelligence and the sensitivity of her perceptions; her lover Pieter, the young butcher; and van Ruijven, Vermeer’s patron and an undisguised philanderer. On a barely conscious level she identifies with Vermeer and bears towards him a tacit loyalty that determines her actions and feelings.
It is a good story and plays out along lines that are foreseeable but satisfactory. The subsidiary characters are well drawn and the book does not outrun its substance. It is easy to see how it could be made into a movie. Chevalier’s style is easy and fluent.
But there is a serious lack in the book. It does not capture the Vermeer that must have been. He was elusive; he remains elusive. Although Chevalier shows some acquaintance with the matter and technique of sixteenth century painting, she shows little sensitivity to the creative process that must have obtained with Vermeer. That he would accept or need his serving maid’s suggestions borders on the outlandish. And Chevalier does not get into the more arcane possibilities that art scholars have suggested about Vermeer’s paintings, namely that the characteristically wonderful soft edges were the result of judicious baking in an oven. Although there is more to Vermeer than may be captured fictionally, it cannot result in a satisfactory novel to shirk the demands of the concomitant difficulties.
As an example of mainstream fiction it is by no means despicable. It offers solid enjoyments although the careful reader will be uneasy about many authorial choices. No one who reads this novel as an entertainment will be disappointed.
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About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: