Mar 15, 2008

Girl with a Pearl Earring

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

More opinions at:
Ardent Reader
The World Inside My Head


  1. This is one of my favourite books ever, and, given that, it is surprising that I haven't read anything else by Tracy Chevalier! I must do something about that.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the book :) I know what you mean about the lack of illustrations. I kept looking them up online while reading, and like you I didn't find the author's website until later.

  2. Yes! I totally agree. I always want books about art to have an index of the works they're talking about. Nothing fancy, just a few glossies to help me understand what's going on.

    This has been on my tbr pile for a while. Sounds worth picking up!

  3. Chevalier's other books are just as good as this one so I do suggest reading some more of her! :)

  4. Anonymous3/15/2008

    Coimbra, 23 de Abril de 1975.
    " Há poucos dias, durante a homilia da missa dominical na igreja de uma freguesia rural das cercanias, o padre falou aos seus paroquianos sobre as próximas eleições para a Assembleia Constituinte. Lançou mão da parábola para melhor se fazer compreender e disse-lhes:

    -"Meus caros irmãos em Cristo: suponhamos que um de vós é dono de uma vaca leiteira; se ganhar o socialismo, fica o irmão com a vaca, mas tem que dar o leite a esse partido; se ganhar o comunismo, fica sem a vaca e sem o leite..." "

    Cristóvão de Aguiar, in Relação de Bordo (1964-1988), página 164, Grande Prémio de Literatura Biográfica APE/CMP - 2000 (ESGOTADO)

  5. This was my most disappointing read of 2007. I didn't like it at all! I've been hesitant to read anything else by Chevalier I was so bored by it. I'm in the vast majority with this one though. This was a book I really THOUGHT I would love. Oh well...lots of books out there for lots of different people to enjoy!

  6. Apparently someone who called Lapa is spamming me. I have no idea what this quote has to do with the book discussed, but when I plugged it into Google Translator the outcome was so funny (if you are amused by awkward translations) I had to post it here for someone's enjoyment:

    Coimbra, April 23, 1975.
    "A few days ago, during the homily of Sunday Mass in a parish church in rural surroundings, the priest spoke to his parishioners about the forthcoming elections for the Constituent Assembly. Launched hand of the parabola to be better understood and told them:

    "My dear brothers in Christ: suppose that one of you is owner of a dairy cow; if you win the socialism, is the brother with a cow, but it has to give the milk to the party, if you win the communism, is without and without the milk cow ... " "

    Christopher de Aguiar, in List of Maple (1964-1988), page 164, Grand Prix Biographic Literature EPA / CMP - 2000 (SOLD OUT)

  7. I read Girl With The Pearl Earring two years ago for school and loved it. But I think you're right about the lack of illustrations. It would have been nice to see what the author was talking about.

  8. Anonymous3/16/2008

    I loved this book but since reading it I have read two of Chevalier's other books and did not like either one of them (The Lady and the Unicorn, and Fallen Angels)... not sure why, honestly. Great review though. :)

  9. I've always wondered about this book--so thanks for the review. I didn't see the movie and for some reason I'm thinking maybe it didn't get favorable reviews. This one, though, from your description, sounds wonderfully written.

  10. I saw the film and liked it very much. I thought it was well done and matched the mood of the book.

  11. I have read 2 of Chevalier's books and agree that there should be illustrations of the art work discussed. I too had to google to find out more after reading both books

  12. Dana- I'm glad to know that ahead of time. When I open up The Lady and the Unicorn, I'll plan to have some visual aid of the tapestries at hand.

  13. My favourite book by Chevalier is Falling Angels. I liked Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn but Falling Angels had something special, imo. One of my favourite books ever I think.

  14. Anonymous3/18/2008

    I didn't read the book but absolutely loved the movie.

  15. The hard cover of The Lady and the Unicorm had the image of the tapestry on it. Gorgeous! and I liked both books, but my memory of them is that they were quite different.
    That spammer was, interesting.

  16. Anonymous3/20/2008

    I have this book on one of my lists this year for one of the challenges. I hope I enjoy it, I've had it on my bookshelf for years but it never manages to get read. Thanks for the review.


Comments are screened due to spam.