Sunday, July 3, 2011

Girl With A Pearl Earring

 For some reason I haven't read a lot of novels written by females over the years. The last one I read was Alice Sebold's The lovely Bones after watching Peter Jackson's lacklustre adaptation. It certainly isn't a conscious effort to avoid female authors as it is just something that has just been. I still haven't been down the Jane Austen route yet but have dabbled in Emily Bronte with Wuthering Heights.

 I looked at this novel last week in the library as I knew of the film adaptation which, for some reason that now escapes me, I didn't go to see. After having now read the novel I must see the film as the novel is a little gem and the cast of the adaptation  a good one with Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson.

 This novel was a New York Times bestseller and it is easy to see why. Yet it has some serious flaws which make it all the remarkable because it is still a fine novel and well worth your time to read. You may know that it is touted as an historical novel, but this is the flaw because in all essence it isn't, and I give Tracy Chevalier a definite 0/10 for her total lack of historical feel within her novel. But as a piece of conjectural history I give it 10/10!!

 Girl With a Pearl Earring is set in mid-17th Century Delft in Holland. As such you would expect to get a novel that makes you feel the period in question and yet Chevalier completely fails to do so. The novel could be based in any period of history from the Ancient Greeks to the mid-20th Century. It has absolutely no historical or period feel to it at all. This is the novels major flaw and I've read that in her next few novels with historical backdrops Chevalier does the same thing. Being set in Holland I expected alot of 'Dutchness', but there is none and could well have been set in a tiny English village as anywhere in Europe or the States.

 Chevalier as an historical author hasn't got it as far as settings goes I'm afraid.  But I will state she does attempt to go into the class system of the times and the differences between the haves and have nots. She also touches on a point of there still being Catholics in Holland even after the ousting of the Spanish influence on the country. It is touched on stuff rather than an in depth feel or air though.

 But when I finished the novel I felt I could forgive her that somewhat because it is a novel of conjectural history rather than a historical novel per se. It is more about the relationship between maid and narrator Griet and painter Johannes Vermeer. This is where this novel comes into its own and I believe its popularity is well earned. Chevalier's motivations behind writing the novel are wonderful and for its lack of historical feel works on every other level.

 The novel is Chevalier's conjecture on the story behind Vermeer's painting, Girl With a Pearl Earring. Little is known of Vermeer as a man and absolutely nothing about the girl in the picture. Who was she? What was her name? Was she ever real or just a figment of Vermeer's imagination? No-one knows and this is the intriguing idea behind the novel as Chevalier brings her plausible take on who she possibly was and the story behind the painting.

 I love the whole premise behind this novel because with so little known it opens the door for some wonderful fiction. I was en rapt with this novel from word go and read it in one night. It is only 248 pages long and is an untaxing read. Interestingly Chevalier has foregone chapters and chopped up the narrative into many separate parts that read almost like a diary as her narrator Griet ( 16 through to late 17 ) speaks to the reader about her life in the Vermeer household. The story revolves around how she came to be in one of Vermeer's paintings and it is a really well crafted story.

 I won't give away details except to say that young Griet is initially is reluctant to as she knows it may end in her being taken sexually by her 'master'. Vermeer is never named by Griet but is referred to as he, him, or master. The painting sequence is the heart of the novel and the build up to it is fantastic, as is the release of tension once it is completed. What an imagination Chevalier has to write such a conjectural novel!! I like how she has taken actual historical art facts and woven them into the narrative. The sexual side of the painting and Griet's reluctance is seen and explained,  because in a Dutch painting of the era open lips, as in Vermeer's painting, meant sexual availability. This is what Griet feared as she in no way wanted to give herself to Vermeer. What Chevalier has conjectured is that Vermeer painted Griet as he saw and wanted her rather than as she actually was. Of course this sexuality of the painting inflames already smouldering resentments in the household and Griet is unceremoniously fired.

 I must admit to really liking this style of historical writing. Sure Chevalier utterly fails in giving an historical Dutch feel to the novel, but she more than makes up for it with some careful art research that she weaves into Griet's narrative beautifully. She writes an afterword that is well worth reading as she explains how she came to write the novel and her motivations for doing so. They are very sound and whilst she has produced a flawed historical novel she has in turn written a very fine example of conjectural history that is hard to ignore or dislike.

 I recommend this novel to all. It is a neat little novel and a real gem....or a real 'pearl' you might say!! I'm confident you will enjoy it and how Tracy Chevalier has come up with a very plausible story based on people who very little to nothing is known about. It is also very much a novel both males and females can read even though it is written from a female perspective. 

 Amazon has this with 4 out of 5 stars from 857 reviews. I think that is fair even though it has its historical flaws. The premise more than makes up for that!!



  1. I've never read the book but I have seen the movie, which I thought was pretty "eh"

  2. I am planning to see the movie ASAP to see how it compares. The novel isn't particularly complex so I would have thought it would be an easy adaptation. But that generally never happens and adaptations very rarely mirror the book.

  3. This was a great read that I had to read for school but I was so happy I did, because there's just something about this story that glued me in every time. Good Review of a beautiful book!

  4. Thanks Dan!! God I wish I got to read books like this when I was at school!!
    I know EXACTLY where you are coming from. It is flawed but the story 'glues' you in, and it is as you say a beautiful book.

  5. Tracy Chevalier did an incredible job of making it seem as if you were Griet. I could picture and hear everything in my mind. Even though it was historical fiction, it seemed as if it were real. Vermeer was such a talented artist and I think his paintings are beautiful. As an artist, I understand how important it is for your work to be as close to perfect as possible. Chevalier makes it very obvious that Vermeer was a gifted artist. The characters in this book were very defined and intriguing. It was very interesting to learn about how Holland was in the 1600s.