by Tracy Chevalier
This is a fictional account of Johannes Vermeer's household, told through the eyes of a young maid, Griet. New to the place, Griet has to learn her trade while facing Vermeer's acerbic mother-in-law, tight-lipped wife and spoiled children who taunt and harass her. In addition to her regular duties, Vermeer puts her to work in his private studio, cleaning and doing rudimentary preparations for his paintings (like grinding pigments). The continual mundane labor of Griet's days is described in a slow, poetic fashion against building emotional friction in the household, for Vermeer's wife is uptight over a many things, the least of which is her jealously. Jealous because Griet alone is privledged to enter the master's sacrosanct studio, and jealous because she is also pretty enough that one day Vermeer asks her to pose for him. The Girl with a Pearl Earring becomes a tense household drama and scandal, over the painting of this picture.
Griet is something of an anomaly. She is very quiet, observant, and hardworking, but also (for an uneducated maid) surprisingly outspoken and forward-thinking. Much of the book is about the slow awakening of her intellect and spirit. She stands a quiet observer in an eddy surrounded by the swirl of larger events, which are only half-perceived. Overall the book is so lovely I was able to overlook her unlikely character and enjoy its beauty and prose.
My only complaint is the lack of illustrations; I would have liked to see the paintings as I read about them. If you visit the author's website, you will find images of the art, alongside quotes of the text where they are mentioned. It's great! I just wish I'd visited it while I was reading the book. I'm eager to read another of Chevalier's books I've seen mentioned lately, The Lady and the Unicorn, which has as much to do with tapestries as this one had to do with oil painting.
Rating: 4/5 ........ Published: 1999, pp 233
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